Daily Archives: June 26, 2012

Revving up your sense of wonder

Unknown mantid

For various reasons, I thoroughly enjoy my day job. It’s not just because it pays for my various carnivorous plant fixes. It’s close enough to the house that I can bicycle to work without the trip being an ordeal. We’re located near enough Texas wilderness that I literally have no way to tell what I’ll encounter on the morning ride. I’ve passed bobcats, coyotes, Texas ratsnakes, red-tailed and Harris’s hawks, vultures and buzzards, armadillos, a bounty of songbirds ranging from scissortails to mockingbirds, at least three species of hummingbird, ox beetles, katydids, and even the occasional roadrunner. That’s not even counting the opossum curled up in a redbud tree right by the bike rack one morning two years ago, hoping that I hadn’t noticed 10 kilos of fatbutt in a tree far too small for it.

Another reason why I enjoy the Day Job comes from the daily conversations. I’m lucky enough to work with a crew of exceptional minds, and a lot of them have very different interests away from the job. When everyone stops in the morning, realizing that we’ve been staring at monitor screens for so long that the words start to run together, that’s when the real fun begins.

And so it happened last Friday, when my boss and I were discussing the upcoming Mars Curiosity rover landing in August. (His background is in fine arts, but he dabbles in quantum physics, and I’ve been a terrible influence on introducing him to the grand tradition of palaeontological art. As I said, it’s an interesting crew out here.) He looked over at a window, stopped for a second, and asked “What the hell is that bug?” Clinging to the window was what appeared at first to be a lacewing, but the more we viewed it, the stranger it was.

Firstly, as can be told, it’s definitely a mantis of some sort. However, with the four species generally found in the North Texas area, only nymphs are this small, and the wings confirm that this was an adult. (In the photo above, the little symbol is the recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic bowl, left in to give a sense of scale.) The whole insect was only 1.5 centimeters long, with a shriveled abdomen that suggested that it was a female that had just laid its egg case. As it was, it was already dying when we found it, and it expired maybe an hour after its capture.

Taking a view of the corpse through a dissecting microscope just brought up more questions. I’ve seen similar grasping arms on other mantid species, but ones that got much, MUCH larger than this one. Only when cleaning up this photo did the second pair of wings present themselves, and with two pairs of wings being a diagnostic for all members of the order Mantodea, I was wondering at first if it were a mantis after all until I saw the second pair. At this size, I could see it being an aggressive predator of ants, aphids, and other small insects, but that’s a bit hard to test with a deceased specimen.

To make things even stranger, no mantid of this sort shows up in Texas bug references, which makes me wonder if it were one blown in via winds off the Gulf of Mexico last week. The big question now is “Is this a lost traveler who was extremely far from home when she died, or is this a representative of a new species that somehow slid past the determined and dedicated crew at the Texas A&M Department of Entomology?” More research is in order, because I’m hoping that this one wasn’t the last of her kind.

EDIT: With friends like Michael Cook, you’d think I’d have the brains to ask someone like him, who practically knows every member of the Phylum Arthropoda on a first-name basis, for a positive ID. It turns out our friend was a mantisfly, a rather rare group of insects more closely related to ant lions and lacewings than true mantids. Many thanks to Michael for passing on that information, and for widening my horizons that much more. I may never see another mantisfly again, but at least I can say that I’ve seen at least one.