The next time you feel like you’re too small to make a difference, think of the mantis. Scientists have discovered that many species of these badass little bugs habitually hunt, kill, and devour entire birds. A report on the mantises’ impressive skills was published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
It’s not like we thought mantises were vegetarians. Their taste for flesh, including each other's, is common knowledge. But so was their basic diet, which consists of bugs and spiders. Once in a blue moon, someone might spot a mantis eating a tiny lizard or a small snake—you know, animals that live on the ground. But birds? Like, the kind with wings? No. How would that even work?
Apparently, the mantises are making it work. Researchers set out to collect and compare every single report they could find of a mantis eating a bird. They figured they’d find a few. Maybe one or two mantis species had figured it out.
One or two species had. As had another one or two. And another ten after that. All in all, the researchers discovered 147 accounts of bird-eating mantises from 12 different species. And this wasn’t some exotic local custom, either; the mantises were grabbing birds in 13 different countries, and on every continent except Antarctica (and that may only be because there are no mantises there).
The paper’s authors were floored by their own findings. "The fact that eating of birds is so widespread in praying mantises, both taxonomically as well as geographically speaking, is a spectacular discovery," lead author Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel said in a statement.
Of course, we’re not talking about big birds here. Of the 24 bird species spotted in mantis mouths, many were hummingbirds. But hummingbirds are no joke, either. Males competing for territory and mates habitually stab each other in the chest. While hunting, they can snap their beaks shut in less than one hundredth of a second. They may be pretty, but they’re hardly helpless.
Nyffeler and his colleagues note that the bugs’ bird eating is more than a party trick. Farmers and gardeners regularly release mantises into the wild, relying on the insects’ appetites for pest control. But you can’t tell a mantis what to do. It might not want to eat your bugs, especially if there are juicy birds nearby. And birds aren’t doing so great right now. We should probably give them a break.
Still thinking of unleashing your own mantis horde? The authors advise “great caution.”