What Can a Praying Mantis Do Without Its Head?

A male praying mantis can continue mating even after the female bites his head off in an act of sexual cannibalism.
A male praying mantis can continue mating even after the female bites his head off in an act of sexual cannibalism.

The praying mantis is one of nature’s so-called "ambush hunters." They lie in wait, camouflaged, and attack their prey with spiky forelimbs. Once under control, the mantis uses its powerful mandible to start dining on its victim, often biting the head off first. But such behavior is not confined to finding prey. Scientists have documented that female mantises sometimes use the same technique when mating.

Dr. Michael Maxwell, professor of biology at National University in La Jolla, California, estimates that a quarter of sexual encounters start badly. During the act, the female bites off the head of her suitor. But does that stop the male from completing his objective? Not necessarily. Maxwell says that about half of these decapitated male mantises continue mating as if nothing has happened.

More about mantises:

  • While cannibalism is not uncommon in nature, Maxwell says only a few groups of animals – such as mantises, spiders and possibly scorpions – sometimes devour each other during mating.

  • Maxwell’s 2017 research included video evidence of a decapitated male mantis mounting a female. This is possible because nerves in the mantis’s abdomen continue to control the movement of its body.

  • Sexual cannibalism typically only occurs in animals that are predators. It’s also more common when one of the sexes is significantly larger than the other. Females mantises tend to be bigger and much stronger.

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    • A male praying mantis can continue mating even after the female bites his head off in an act of sexual cannibalism.
      A male praying mantis can continue mating even after the female bites his head off in an act of sexual cannibalism.