Praying for a Merry Mantismas
Carolina Mantises come for Christmas
Welcome back, all, to the post-NaNoWriMo return of Mouse and Minnow, the mostly-weekly newsletter where Steve and I celebrate animals with original art and writing. (And yes, I did successfully complete National Novel Writing Month, so the hiatus was not for nothing!)
Since it’s now December, we thought we’d get a little festive with a brand new holiday story that is sure to become a Christmas classic. When carols are being sung and the stop-motion animated special is released in the coming years, you can say that you got in on the ground floor…
A Little Case of Christmas
By Marilyn Anne Campbell
Once upon a cold December, on the edge of the Finger Lakes, a group of children living in an orphanage were trying not to think of Christmas. They knew there was barely enough money for regular food and clothes, and no one ever came to visit them, not even magical men in red suits, so there would certainly be no presents on December 25th.
But the cook at the orphanage did not like the thought of the children having no Christmas cheer at all, so one bright snowy day, right after breakfast was through, she bundled up a few of the oldest children in all the warmest clothes from every child's trunk, and they took an axe and a sled and went to the woods outside to find a Christmas tree. They found a perfect little pine that would just fit at the end of the dining hall, so they checked the branches for squirrels and sleeping owls, and finding none, they cut the tree down and dragged it home.
That night at their meagre dinner all the children chatted excitedly about the plain little Christmas tree propped up in the corner. Seeing the looks on their faces and the way their breath frosted in the air as they spoke, the cook had another idea. So the next day the little troop bundled themselves back up and out they went again, but this time to collect firewood. They cut down small red oaks and black maples and white ash, and collected silver birch bark to help get the fires started. They were always careful not to cut down any trees with cavities that would make a nice warm nest for a forest creature (for if there's one thing orphans are aware of, it's how terrible it is not to have a place to call home). At first they couldn't cut and carry very much wood at once, but they kept going back each morning and got stronger and faster at chopping, and better at stacking the wood on the sled just so. So as December went on the orphanage grew warmer and warmer, until by the time Christmas Eve came it was a downright cozy place to be.
It was so comfortable in fact that a few of the children were reminded of what it was like to have a proper Christmas—those who had ever had one, that is. So as they lay in the dark they dared to talk about what gifts they would most like for Christmas, if Santa were ever to come to such a place.
"I would like a puppy to be friends with," said one child.
"I would like a doll to take care of," said another.
"Well I would like someone to get rid of all the flies in here, but that's not going to happen either, is it?" said one child who had never had any kind of Christmas at all.
The other children stopped their dreaming and wishing, and rolled over to think of sadder things. Yet when morning came, each awoke with a tiny bit of hope; the hope that the Christmas tree would hold something just for them.
They dressed—lightly, for the fireplaces were already ablaze—and filed down to breakfast, trying to pretend that it was any other day. As each one entered the dining hall they looked sideways at the little Christmas tree, hoping to see a brown-paper package with their name.
Of course there were no packages, but there WAS something brown in the tree. Many somethings, moving gently as if blowing in a breeze. The children crowded around to have a look.
"Are they decorations?" asked one child.
"Are they elves?" asked another.
"My heavens," said the cook, who had come over to see what the commotion was about. "They're praying mantises!"
And she was right. For the tree they had chosen might not have had a squirrel or an owl in it, but it had been home to an ootheca, or egg case, left there by a Carolina Mantis. And as the orphanage had warmed with the daily fires, the mantis nymphs inside their eggs had come to believe it was spring, and hatched six months too soon.
The tiny mantis nymphs looked just like miniature adult mantises, with each perched on a different branch of the tree and waving their long forearms about. They took turns tilting their triangular heads to peer into the faces of the children, and the children took turns tilting their heads to peer right back.
"Are they babies?" asked the child who wanted a doll.
"Must have just hatched this morning," said the cook.
"Can we keep them?" asked the child who wanted a puppy.
"We'll have to," said the cook. "It's still much too cold for them to go outside."
And so one by one the children lined up and took turns inviting a little mantis to climb onto their hand. There was exactly one mantis for each child, and one child for each mantis.
"But wait," said the child who had never had a proper Christmas. “How will we feed them? What do they eat?”
"Why, they eat other insects," said the cook. "In fact, I've heard that mantises are excellent at taking care of pests."
And so it was that an ootheca in Ithaca made for a very merry Christmas after all.
The Carolina Mantis
The term praying mantis can specifically refer to the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa), but here in North America it's used to generally refer to a number of different mantid species. The Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) featured in the story is a native species in the Americas and lives across much of the U.S. and into Central and South America. (Admittedly, placing them as far north as Ithaca, New York back in the time when orphanages were still a thing is a big stretch, as BugGuide.net notes that they likely only spread into New York in recent years. But Christmas is a time for the suspension of disbelief, after all.)
Carolina Mantises are around two to seven centimeters long, and can be mottled green, brown, or grey. As adults the males can fly using wings that run the length of their bodies, while the flightless females have shorter wings and stouter bodies. Like all mantises, they are ambush predators who like to sit and wait for prey to come in range so they can snatch them with those long, fancy front legs. Spikey structures on the forelegs help the mantises grip the prey to make sure no one wiggles away before they can be eaten. (Festive!)
Real Life Cases of Unexpected Oothecae
Though the story above is fictional, some people really have ended up with an unexpected mantis baby boom emerging from their Christmas tree, such as the veterinarian in Virginia who had over a hundred mantis nymphs in her home in 2019. Oothecae vary in size and shape with different mantid species, but they are generally designed to blend in with plant branches and stems, so are easy for humans focused on finding the perfectly-shaped tree to overlook.
Mantid oothecae can contain anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred eggs, and hatch in the spring or summer depending on local climate and temperature. The female lays the eggs and creates the ootheca at the same time, the egg case starting out as a sort of foamy secretion. It soon hardens into a tough case that helps protect the eggs from pests, predators, and changes in moisture and weather conditions.
Watch an excellent video from Chris Egnoto's Nature, Here and Now! YouTube channel that actually shows a Carolina Mantis creating her ootheca: Praying Mantis Laying Eggs! - Stagmomantis carolina
This week we have two sets of links, depending on your fancy:
More About the Carolina Mantis:
The species profile for the Carolina Mantis on Animal Diversity Web from University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology provides a great summary.
Explore the Carolina Mantis profile page and species observations submitted by the public on the citizen science website iNaturalist.
The article The Invasive Mantis Species from the Brandywine Conservancy in Pennsylvania provides a good overview of the pressures Carolina Mantises face from non-native mantids that now live within their range, with nice comparison photos of the adult insects and oothecas…
while the Praying Mantid page from University of Maryland Extension offers some additional comparison points and photos.
And if you happen to be in Polk County, North Carolina, Conserving Carolina is eager to hear about any of your Carolina Mantis sightings
More Arthropods at Christmas (all links to YouTube):
"The Legend of the Christmas Spider" is a European folktale about the origins of a certain Christmas tree decoration, but the story itself is also why some people include a spider decoration on their tree.
Wladyslaw Starewicz, one of the pioneers of stop-motion animation, made the short film "The Insects' Christmas" in 1913 by turning actual dead insects into puppets with movable limbs. The six minute film was remastered and colourized by Adam Maciaszek in time for Christmas 2020. Eat your heart out, Rudolph.
Another type of insect that creates oothecas are cockroaches, who are conveniently featured in the bizarre but Oscar-winning short "Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life" (1993). Written and directed by Peter Capaldi and starring Richard E. Grant, this 23 minute film imagines Franz Kafka struggling to write his now-famous novella "The Metamorphosis" on a Christmas Eve, and absurdity ensues. (While I don't usually share anything that I know is violating copyright, uploads of the film have been on YouTube for over a decade, presumably without Capaldi issuing a takedown notice, so I'm going to guess he's okay with it). Fun fact: Steve owns this on DVD.
Only have a minute? Delight to real spider footage mixed with some added animation and Christmas music with A Peacock Spider Christmas from the Snake Buddies:
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