Orchid mantises have evolved into a fake flower that out-flowers the real thing. The insects don’t seem to be mimicking any real flower found so far, but have invented something even fancier.
Among the many oddly shaped mantises of the world, only the petal-legged, corsage-worthy orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) comes close to counterfeiting a whole blossom, says James O’Hanlon of Macquarie University in Sydney.
Which can be a nuisance. Searching rainforests for orchid mantises to study is “very frustrating,” O’Hanlon says. “Every time you see a flower you go nuts thinking you’ve found one, and then it’s just a flower.”
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This resemblance led Alfred Russel Wallace, the largely forgotten also-ran of evolutionary theory, to propose that the phony flowers lure a pollinator close enough to grab in an eye-blink strike. (They can rip apart a butterfly thrice their size.)
O’Hanlon was shocked to discover, though, that this oft-mentioned idea had never been tested. He and his colleagues began scouring Malaysian rainforests for wild orchid mantises.
“As far as we can tell, they’re fantastically rare,” O’Hanlon says. People living in the rainforest brought some to the researchers, he says, but “it took over a month to find one myself.”
That fits with theory, which suggests deceitful mimics should be rare or else their victims would catch on. Other
evidence also fits Wallace’s idea, O’Hanlon and his colleagues report in the January 2014 American Naturalist.
Orchid mantises’ colors fall within the range of 13 local flower species, according to computer models that simulate what colors bees actually see. And when researchers set orchid mantises out in the forest, local bees, flies and butterflies flew fatally close. The mantises, in fact, attracted more pollinators than real flowers did.
O’Hanlon has yet to find a flower that the mantis looks very much like. Yet it fooled Australian journalist James Hingsley so thoroughly in 1879 that he reported it as a real orchid “that catches and feeds upon live flies.”
LYING LIKE AN ORCHID An orchid mantis (top) catches insects that come too close, tricked by the insect’s flowerlike appearance. Close-up views of another orchid mantis (bottom) show it feeding on prey.
Credit: Left: J. O’Hanlon; Right: Precarious333/Youtube