Close encounter on Montjuic: a Cone-head Mantis

November 3rd, 2010 | Written by Lucy Brzoska.

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The prohibitively steep slope falls away to the ring road below, where traffic crawls day and night. This is the wildest, most inaccessible side of Montjuic, covered in grass, broom, the occasional stunted pine and mast-like agave cactus.  There are contrasting views of the colourful containers stacked in the port and the shining sea beyond.

On a warm, drowsy late October day I was wandering about on the edge of the hill side and noticed a delicate Green Lacewing perched on a stem. I was pushing aside the grass for a better view when suddenly a twisted bit of straw quivered and move away on all sixes.

cone-head-mantis-nymph-empusa-pennata

It was the legendary Cone-head mantis (Empusa pennata).  The last time I’d seen something so uncanny and brittle-looking was the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts.  Close up it seemed wizard-like, with the eyes of an alien.

pointed-head-of-a-cone-head-mantis

Coloured like dead plant matter, its camouflage was perfected by long, sharp-angled legs that repeated the criss-cross pattern of surrounding stems. It was a risk to look away even for a second – the diminutive mantis might merge back into the grass, never to be seen again.

cone-head-mantis-camouflage

Only about 3 cm-long, the creature was a nymph, as evidenced by its curled rutted “tail”.  If it survives, it’ll acquire a winged adult form next spring.  Other features that distinguish the Cone-head Mantis from the more commonly seen Praying Mantis, whose eggs hatch in spring, is a preference for smaller prey.  The females show no penchant for eating their mates.