They don't exactly leap tall buildings in a single bound, but praying mantises do have something akin to superpowers. Young mantises do not have wings, so evolution has bestowed them with the remarkable ability to leap from point A to point B in a tenth of a second—less than the blink of an eye. And in a move that any Olympic snowboarder would envy, the airborne mantises rapidly twist their bodies so that they land with precision every time, never stumbling or grappling with their target.
“This is akin to asking an ice skater who is rotating at the same speed as these mantises to stop suddenly and accurately face a specific direction,” Malcolm Burrows, an entomologist at the University of Cambridge, says in a release.
Burrows and a team of British colleagues discovered this gymnastic feat by analyzing 381 high-speed videos of mantises performing their incredible jumps. They filmed 58 juvenile mantises as the insects leapt across a distance of about one to two mantis body lengths, landing on a black rod hung in their enclosure.
In each video, the team found that the insects followed the same pattern of movement: They swayed their heads back and forth like a cobra, likely judging the position and distance to the black target. Then they began wiggling their bodies back and forth, like a cat preparing to pounce. Finally, they curled their abdomens toward the target, adjusting their center of mass.
After springing from their perch, the mantises began to rotate mid-air in a controlled spin, moving at a rate of about 2.5 times per second. The movement doesn’t affect their bodies uniformly, though. Instead, the spin moves through their abdomen, front legs and hind legs like a wave, allowing them to divvy up angular momentum so that the whole body stays on target. In the last 10 milliseconds of the jump, the insects stopped rotating in preparation to grab the rod.
As the team describes today in the journal Current Biology, this corkscrewing choreography allows the mantises to precisely nail their target by controlling the way their bodies move through space. To double-check the finding, the researchers superglued a few hapless mantises’ abdominal plates together, preventing the young insects from curling their abdomens forward in preparation for the jump.
The impaired insects rotated 57 percent slower than their freewheeling counterparts, the team found. As a result, the glued mantises’ landings were clumsy and, as the team writes, “some under-rotations even result in mantises hitting the target headfirst before falling away from it.” In other words, lacking that crucial abdominal shift meant mantises were apt to face-plant and belly flop.
Most jumping insects lack the feline grace of juvenile mantises, the researchers point out, and after launching themselves off the ground, they are more likely to crash land or spin uncontrollably. The juvenile mantises’ precision, therefore, is quite exceptional. For their next experiment, the researchers plan to take a peek into the mantises’ brains to try and weed out the neural mechanism responsible for the insects’ aerial pirouettes. Ultimately, they say, such findings could help with designs for tiny hopping robots that always stick their landings.