The Praying Mantis: How One of God's Smallest Creations Might Help Us Heal

You won’t notice them from any reasonable distance. They won’t crawl towards you like a brazen spider before you crush it with a nearby shoe. They won’t buzz around your picnic table, making small stops atop a pile of burgers or a plate of tomatoes or a bowl of potato chips like a fly. They won’t gather by the hundreds to attack your feet and legs when you step on its home like a colony of fire ants.

The praying mantis will sit still, eerily motionless, camouflaged by the plants in your garden or the trees in the woods behind your house. You will not see them until you step right up on them and only then do you stop, somewhat amazed at this creature so quiet and frozen that you’re not sure if what you’re looking at is living or not.

The praying mantis sees you. He’s not scared because his wits are about him, and he knows the best way to evade predatory threats is to stay true to itself. To not run, not scamper away for shelter under a rock or a gathering of leaves on the forest floor. No, the praying mantis will not waver its position there. It is designed to move only as the branch it sits upon moves. The mantis is patient, focused, and confident.

At the end of the day, a praying mantis is just a bug. If we saw it in our house, we’d be tempted to smash it with a book. The more humane and tolerant ones among us may take the mantis outside to its natural habitat. It would be rare, however, to find someone who places much esteem or value in the praying mantis.

Insect in a 3D World

Jenny Read from Newcastle University in London is one who finds great value in these strange insects. As a professor of vision science, Read has developed a unique method of research using the praying mantis in studying stereopsis, or what is known as three-dimensional (3D) vision.

Praying mantises have been observed as having stereopsis for decades, but until a few years ago a thorough study had not been done to prove this. But how do you do research on whether or not a mantis has 3D vision? By fitting them with 3D glasses, of course.

Just like the ones you used to go see the classic Avatar in its theater release, Professor Read fitted mantises with their very own miniature 3D glasses. Since mantises cannot see the color red, they were given blue and green glasses instead, affixed to their eyes using beeswax.

The next step in the study was to place the praying mantis in front of a screen flashing moving images. When an image was large enough on the screen and appeared to be in close proximity to the mantis, it would strike with its front legs in an attempt to capture prey.

This “sit still and wait” approach before swiftly reaching out to grab nearby prey earned the praying mantis quite a reputation over the years. Ancient Chinese cultures viewed them as courageous and used their methodology as symbolism in times of war: “strike fast and without hesitation.” Praying mantises were also seen as gods in African mythology. Small creatures for sure, but respected ones.

Because they only strike at prey that is within range, praying mantises must have an “all or nothing” approach to survive. 3D vision is essential. “Despite their minute brains, mantises are sophisticated visual hunters which can capture prey with terrifying efficiency,” says Professor Read. The praying mantis is keen on grasshoppers, crickets, and flies, but are not above taking their chances on larger prey including frogs and hummingbirds.

Why Mantis Study Matters

Doing research on the visual habits of the praying mantis sounds interesting, but like any other scientific study, the question must be asked: what’s the point?

Until recently, stereopsis studies were confined to vertebrates. The idea that a simple insect may provide some groundbreaking vision insight was non-existent. Dr. Vivek Nityananda, also from Newcastle University, noted something intriguing: the eyes of a praying mantis resemble those of humans.

With the success of the stereopsis study, praying mantises are now the first invertebrates ever discovered to have 3D vision. Why should this matter to us? Because the nervous systems of mantises are simpler than those of humans, the mechanisms behind their 3D vision may be easier for scientists and engineers to adapt into various depth perception systems used by robots. Stereopsis in mantises may even provide new insights into human vision.

Human nervous systems and vision are complex. They are difficult to transfer into robotic systems. But if the 3D vision of praying mantises is much simpler than ours, scientists may be able to build algorithms for technological use in what Professor Read calls “lightweight, autonomous robots.”

The conveniences of modern technology go without saying. In the still-ever-changing 21st century, we are constantly seeing lives made easier by quicker data retrieval, instant connections to people we need to get in touch with, and of course our Starbucks coffee order made with brilliant efficiency. But in terms of technology that can be considered life-changing, studies like the praying mantis one done by Newcastle are important.

Consider a needed surgery on a patient experiencing severe pain. One where human hands and fingers are not as efficient as the precision of a robotic arm. Any enhancement of the depth perception of that robot could literally impact whether someone lives or dies.

That seems dramatic, and chances are the mantis study will lead to changes relevant more to efficiency for businesses outside of medical centers. Yet the idea that the way an insect roughly the size of a teacup views its prey could impact us in any way is incredible.

How a Praying Mantis Might Help Us

As humans, we wield such amazing power over animals, especially insects. Little boys will bring out magnifying glasses and use them to reflect the sun onto an ant, burning it to death. Little girls will find a slug and watch it shrivel away as they dowse it with salt. As adults, we won’t tolerate even the slightest invasion of bugs into our house. Sales of flyswatters, traps, and various other pesticides prove that.

Yet we also realize that God didn’t make mistakes in his creation. Every animal has their place, designed in often unseen ways to be connected to the other parts of creation. The benefit of the praying mantis has long been considered to be that of a natural pest repellant, eating the very bugs that would seek to destroy various crops. But mantises do not discriminate the prey they seek out. Even beneficial bugs see their demise at the sharp end of a mantis’ front legs.

Still, the mantis has potential to help us beyond munching down the caterpillar that’s eating through our cucumber garden. Insights into their 3D vision may give surgeons the necessary improvements to make their efforts even more successful. According to the Mayo Clinic, robots used in surgery provide great benefits including less pain, lowered risk of infection, quicker recovery, and reduction of scarring. Years from now you or a loved one may go through a procedure that was once painful and needed weeks of recovery only to find it pain-free with minimal recovery time required. And that could be a result of the ingenious vision God designed praying mantises to have.

Though we often fail to see it, God knew exactly what He was doing when He created the world, and all the animals in it. “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24) Even the creatures that may be a nuisance to us. God designed each of them to perfection. You have to laugh when you think about the fact that the praying mantis is closely related to the termite and the cockroach.

The amazing research of Jenny Read and her team at Newcastle have given us yet another reason to be in awe of God. One of the frailest creatures on the earth holds amazing discoveries for us. A creature that exists right in our backyard. One often ignored. In a world that produces amazing creativity day after day, no designer has yet to exist that matches the creativity of God, the creator of hairy spiders, of house flies, of fire ants, and yes, of praying mantises.