Camouflaged against the stones and gravel, desert mantises (Eremiaphila spp.) are so cryptic that they are difficult to spot unless they are moving.
They are well-adapted to arid habitats, and there are 31 different Eremiaphila species recorded in Egypt.
Desert mantises are voracious ambush predators, waiting patiently until their prey is spotted and then pursuing their victims quickly and grasping them with their spiked forelegs. Because their hunting relies heavily on vision, desert mantises are diurnal, or active during the day. They are very flexible, able to move their heads without moving their whole bodies, allowing a large field of vision.
Although flightless, adult desert mantises have small wings, as seen in the magnified inset below.
Have you spotted desert mantises on your wadi wanderings?
While you’re more likely to come across an Egyptian Flower Mantis in the wadis of South Sinai, Giant African Mantises are more often spotted in cultivated gardens.
Also called African Mantis or Bush Mantis, this species (Sphodromantis viridis) is a popular pet around the world. They are native to West Africa, south of the Sahara, so are an introduced species here in Sinai.
I am always so excited to find them in my desert garden. And while I don’t keep them as pets, I have been known to hand-feed them flies that I have swatted inside my house.
Like all mantises, they have a triangular head and forward facing eyes that give them binocular vision, a great advantage in catching prey. Their color can range from bright green to dull brown and are often cryptically-colored to match the background of their habitat. Females can grow up to 10 cm in length and males are always smaller. As adults, both have distinctive white spots on their wings, which you can see in the photo below if you look closely.
Males will frequently become victims of sexual cannibalism, being eaten by the females prior to, during, or after copulation. A few days after mating, the female will produce one – or several – ootheca, or egg mass.
The eggs are laid on a twig in a frothy, foam-like substance that then hardens. After three to six months, up to 300 nymphs can hatch from a single ootheca.
Mantises develop by gradual metamorphosis, molting six to nine times or more. Each time they molt, their hard exoskeleton splits and a soft-skinned mantis pushes itself out. This allow for a larger exoskeleton to grow. As they wait for their new skin to harden, they hang upside down and are quite vulnerable to predators, particularly birds. The time range between molts is usually nine to fifteen days and the mantises will eventually become adults and develop wings.
Besides lacking wings, the abdomens of nymphs are folded, but they are still skillful ambush predators, waiting quietly for prey to approach.
They are general predators, eating all types of arthropods – mosquitoes and gnats when the mantises are small and moving on to larger critters like bees, moths, grasshoppers, and crickets as they grow. They will even eat other mantises.
They have grasping front legs to catch and hold their prey and extremely strong mouth parts.
An interesting side note: praying mantises may have had religious significance in Ancient Egypt. It might have been believed that the mantises served as guides to the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. And in one excavation in Luxor, a small clay coffin was found that held the remains of a praying mantis wrapped in linen.