Close encounter on Montjuic: a Cone-head Mantis

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Black-tailed Skimmers at lunchtime

Written by Lucy Brzoska

With parallel worlds evolving in the park, it’s amazing what can be happening by your elbow, unnoticed.

I’ve seen squirrels hanging upside down on the tree trunks, looking down at oblivious heads only inches away.  Or Black rats bursting out of the hedge, flying straight into a litter bin, while people chat or have lunch nearby, none the wiser. And the other day it was the Black-tailed Skimmers.

A pair were trying to mate in the wide expanse of the palace forecourt, getting pestered by a lone marauding male.   The couple finally found some peace and quiet on the stone balustrade that runs behind the semi circle of benches.

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You could clearly see the way the male folds the darkened tip of his flexible abdomen over the head of the female, to secure her in position.  Or the way the female uses four legs to hold onto her partner, while the third pair gets tucked right back, neatly out of the way.

Perhaps I disturbed them, because the Skimmers flew over to a flowering bush, next to a woman absorbed in her newspaper. The dragonflies, their green eyes like aviator goggles, held on tight, as the twig swung in the breeze.

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After separating, the female rested on the ground for a while.  Female Black-tailed Skimmers emerge into the world bright yellow, but with age can change colour.  This one had an indeterminate grey green shimmer.

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I saw her zipping over the ornamental fountain, dropping off eggs at a terrific speed.  The only pity is it wasn’t the pond, where chances of hatching are significantly higher.