The Deadly Mantis

It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.

The insects are known to have some of the fastest moves in the animal kingdom, and there are few moves faster than the strike of the praying mantis. Like the mantis shrimp, its front legs are folded into a hinged, “raptorial” shape that give the impression of a monk with its hands and wrists folded in prayer. A Shaolin monk, of course, because the pose is perfect for a blindingly-fast butt-whupping. While the mantis shrimp uses its claws for punching, the praying mantis’s inside claws are lined with sharp spikes for stabbing and grabbing. As for the attack: Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. A mantis’ forelegs strike and retract in half the time of a human blink. And while they usually prey on insects and spiders, their speed is so great that they will take down animals three times their size: lizards, chameleons, frogs, fish, small mammals, and even birds that stray too close. Even hummingbirds.

According to legend, it was watching a mantis kill a bird that inspired both the Southern and the Northern Praying Mantis Style of Kung Fu. Southern Style Praying Mantis, developed independently from the Northern Style, evolved from the Dragon Style of Chinese boxing and is possibly the more obviously derived from its animal inspiration. Southern Style Praying Mantis begins with a low stance, giving the fighter a lower and sturdier center of gravity. Footwork is fast, but use of kicks are limited. As you’d expect, Mantis Style fighters focus primarily on incredibly quick jabs to pressure points, holding their wrists up like their namesakes. Training to fight in the Mantis style means strengthening your forearms and fingers to be able to snap a trachea in an instant. You might wear 60-lb iron rings on each wrist while training, or do push-ups using only your thumbs. The result is lightning-quick hands that dismantle your opponent by their joints, or grab them and pull them into your sphere of influence.

The “mantis” is the one with the hair.

Snake and Mantis Styles are superficially similar, so check out this Shaolin monk performing a Mantis routine:

Mantises, of course, are ambush predators. Fighting isn’t really their thing. They use their camouflage, with different species blending in variously with leaves,





or even newly fire-scorched earth, to strike seemingly out of nowhere. They sway rhythmically like a bit of grass in the breeze — something you’ll see imitated in the fighters’ stances — which also serves the purpose of aiding its otherwise poor depth perception. So they’re really more like ninjas when they’re hunting. But when confronted, they go full samurai: they will rear up and show off their wings, which have a dual-purpose sexual and warning coloration.

This ought to scare off that oncoming ice cream truck.

Though their compound eyes give little depth perception, they do give the mantis a keen awareness of their surroundings. Combined with their ability to turn their heads 300 degrees, it’s pretty hard to get the drop on them. But if anything can provoke a real fight, its another mantis; they are notorious cannibals. So to compare the insect with the kung fu boxers, you have to watch Mantis vs Mantis.

And there you have it. Quick jabs to the center, probably the eyes or leg joints. Unlike Southern Praying Mantis Style, the insect prefers long-range boxing, trying to spear the other without being speared. If their spikes are caught, however, the two will grapple, bringing their faces together so the mandibles touch. Mantis fights are settled very quickly; as with many animals, the larger one will soon prevail. In a knife fight, you want to make sure you’ve got the longest reach.

Also, don’t fight the drunk guy. Jet Li Mantis action starts around 3’10”.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “The Deadly Mantis

  • Copernicus

    So, is there a Honey Badger School, or is that what Ultimate Fighting is all about? Actually, I guess not, since the victor doesn’t eat the loser in UF. Not that some producer hasn’t pitched that angle, mind you.

    • quantumbiologist

      I’m sure! Though, as I pointed out in the Honey Badger post, the animal’s method for defending itself against much larger animals is to run underneath them and bite their testicles off, which seems to be against all professional fighting rules and probably wouldn’t be particularly television-friendly.

      • Copernicus

        Au contraire. Running underneath and biting an opponent’s testicles off is the preferred format for Fox political commentary. Ok, metaphorically. But I’m sure Rupert Murdoch would love to televise the real thing if he were allowed.

        Homonids are greatly and intensely fascinated to watch the misfortunes of their fellows… so, yes, Honey Badger Fighting would be a total hit. I’ve heard it said that our fascination with fraternal tragedy is a lesson-learning predisposition is an adaptation to help us avoid a similar fate on the savannah (“OK… so THAT’S what lions do if they catch one of us! Whoah!”)

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