Welcoming [name]!

NEW MANTIS. It is always exciting to adopt a new mantis- mantids of different species have different personalities, so getting a new mantis is like meeting a new character your life, in a way. However, [name] is a male of the same specie as Darwin, who is a female Ghost Mantis (phyllocrania paradoxa).

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Some of you might be thinking, “hmm, you have a male, and a female, and they’re the same specie…” — don’t get ahead of yourselves. [Name] is not yet an adult mantis- he is still a nymph, and likely has several more molts to go before he is mature. However, once they’re both adult and have been well fed, I may strategically remove the wire barrier that keeps them separate.

Praying mantids are interestingly analogous to humans in form and function. First, praying mantids are the only specie of insect that can turn its head with distinction- most mantids can turn their heads a full 180˚. This initial similarity gives the mantis the impression of having some cognitive ability, as it will often follow your finger or appear to “decide” whether to climb on your finger, stare at you, or turn around.

Second, praying mantis species have personalities (though even using the word personality implies its intention as a human descriptor). I say mantis species because each individual mantis within each specie will generally respond to stimuli in rather identical patterns, and exhibit little or no relative “personality.” However, each praying mantis specie is adapted to live in a different natural environment, and each environment would cater to a different set of behavioral tendancies. For instance, a mantis in the rainforest may achieve the best success by blending in, or mimiking a flower or leaf, because other insects are bountiful and relatively common. However, a mantis suited for a more temperate or deciduous environment where food is widely dispersed might be more aggressive and apt to actively hunt. These behavioral tendencies would certainly be interpreted by us ever-interpretive humans as “personality,” although a more appropriate word might be temperament or average disposition.

I am excited to meet this new mantis and compare his behavior with that of Darwin. Will “gender” exist? Are there distinctly male and female behavioral tendencies and patterns?

Right- also, he needs a name. Ideas, anyone?

On Death

Humans hate death. We are made immediately uncomfortable upon its mentioning, even in the first sentence of a blog post. We dread constantly that death might come knocking, and when it does knock, we often do not know how to react. Not very much in our lives is actually terminal. Graduating from (anywhere) is merely the beginning of the next adventure. Being fired from a good job- or geographically moving and uprooting all proximate connections- or experiencing a destructive natural disaster- is again, a neatly disguised opportunity. With every door that closes, another opens.

But death opens no doors. Death is actually terminal. Eternally terminal. We have very little in our own lives with which death can compare. Not very much in our lives is actually eternal— perhaps comprable to painting pictures of distant galaxies in remote corners of the universe or projecting wildly into the unimaginable path of the future– It is this unattainability that lends death its widespread fear, but also its allure.

We have a cultural fascination with death. This same institution that I have just described as so unnerving and unquestionable is featured in all types of media, all of the time. Hundreds of songs, movies, youtube videos, works of literature, TV shows and books prominently feature death. It is a common thematic idea present in an incredible array of media sources. However, this may be largely as a result of the grieving artists and musicians expressing the intense emotions that death so viscerally evokes. Death is a relatively common phenomenon- just a bit less common than birth. Thousands of songs and books and poems have thus been written on the subject, often initially as a venue for the grieving to express. This, then, is not the cultural fascination that is so fascinating, so I should say, rather—

We have a cultural fascination with crass, bloody, savage representations of death. We societally enjoy watching death up close and gruesome. Did you notice the incredible recent proliferation of vampire and werewolf books/TV-shows/movies? How about the literary trend best exemplified by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? The entire movie genre “horror” is essentially founded in the twisted manipulation of death and dead people. Frankly, I love horror movies. They’re fun and scary and get my blood pumping. Do I enjoy watching deaths on screen? I don’t know. Not particularly—as in, I don’t eagerly anticipate that scene in (spoiler alert) the Dead Poet’s Society and A Separate Peace where Neil and Finny die- but I totally get pumped to watch Achilles fight Hector or any scene in Lord of the Rings, and the fact that this site exists makes me think that we do often enjoy watching death. Why?

One important distinction should made clear: we do not enjoy seeing death. Most people cringe when they drive over chipmunks or witness a hawk tearing at a bloody squirrel carcass. Imagine seeing one man beat another man to death with a metal pipe, as you might have before in a movie. This is clearly a revolting thought. Yet, for such a disturbing image, death often blatantly permeates movies, TV shows, and other media sources. Interestingly, in comparison with other countries, death is often considered taboo in America. How can this make sense?

I (in particular) see death almost daily. I had this realization when I first started keeping praying mantids. Where else do you see death? Most people do not see death daily, or even monthly, though those who participate in hunting sports, soldiery, or other select professions may see death occasionally more often then laymen. However, I regularly see (and am endlessly fascinated by seeing) the life drain agonizingly from a cricket as it is devoured headfirst by a mantis. To anthropomorphize, the crickets are clearly in agonizing pain as their eyeballs are slowly consumed. Even so, I still get excited and gather people around and take pictures every time I feed the mantis. Why does death have such black allure?

I think the root of the allure of death comes from primal curiosity. We naturally are inclined to desire knowledge where we have none. However, as I previously discussed, death cannot be compared to any other aspect of our lives. I would describe death as cognitively unattainable, as we have no natural framework through which to understand its function and purpose. Natural framework lacking, we invented religion. How does religion deal with death? In addition to providing community, support, and guidance, religion elevates death, as best demonstrated by the concepts of heaven, or an afterlife. For thousands of years, humans would see death, hear religious doctrine, and feel comforted by having a framework through which to understand death.

Today, many people do not feel comforted by religion, and thus this answer of blind faith does not satisfy their curiosity. And so we search death out in order to study it, to do our own observation and assessment. I think much of our search is subconscious, as demonstrated by my lasting fascination with mantis eating habits, my proclivity towards enjoying fight scenes and horror films, and all societal extrapolations of these deathly trends. Markets reflect demand. Arguably all humans conduct their own familiarization with death, whether it be through writing, fighting, playing violent videogames, hunting deer, or cooking lobster.

Death sells. This much is evident from the success of all vampire-related drama (Read: crap). However while our fascination with death drives the market and provided the initial impetus, I think we are also informed by our environment to a great extent. The theory of engineered consent (which I wrote about here) says that statistics and strategic marketing can inform an audience into creating a niche market. Teens are shown images of scalding hot vampiric actors, and coincidentally, sales of most death-obsessed media forms skyrocket. The concept of a “scary movie” has been around since film was invented, but why is this attractive in the first place?

We are taught to confront our fears. Our parents tell us that we can either spend our whole lives dreading something, or we can face it, deal with it, and get over it. We spend our whole lives dreading death, and yet the way this manifests is as a tendency to want to watch it, as if to get familiar or comfortable with it. We all want to be able to say “I’m comfortable with death,” so as to appear invulnerable. I have heard some of my friends who “watch a lot of horror movies” and regularly play violent videogames say that they feel “comfortable” or “numb” to death from media exposure. I would here like to interject my own observation on death: I, too, have watched many horror movies and played violent videogames for fun— I even see death on an intimate level on a daily basis— and I am absolutely and abhorrently uncomfortable with death.

We fetishize death because we are searching for familiarity, comfort, or some understanding of death from media, almost replacing religion in effect. It is ubiquitous and inevitable, as we all share a primal curiosity towards that which we do not understand. We hate thinking about death. It is unnerving, because it can and will happen to all of us. It may be the most certain aspect of each of our lives. Not everyone will go to college or get married or write a book or even try Chinese food- but someday, we will all die. At a most basal level, our mortality connects all humans in collective anticipation.

Do what feels right for you. Watch horror movies. Read Twilight. Get cozy with vampires, and think about how death serves best to put life in perspective for you. When confronted by death, do what feels natural. Watch some crickets get eaten on youtube. Eat some crickets yourself, or feed them to your younger brother or something. While it is important to recognize why and how we feel about death, I do not mean to cast judgement upon any death-related media (with the exception of vampire-related-literature (Read: crap). To each their own.

TL;DR: Death is universally frightening to humans, and has thus historically manifested as an attachment to religion, and in modernity, appears as a societal obsession with death related media.

Please feel free to comment, subscribe, and answer any of the unintentionally rhetorical questions I asked above. 

On Human Nature

I’d like to share a truly beautiful natural metaphor that I see in the praying mantis’s life cycle. As a longtime admirer and mantis hobbyist, I am repeatedly stunned by these incredibly similar, yet starkly alien creatures.

Every spring around the world, mantis nymphs emerge from their foamy egg sacks. Almost magically, like so many instinctual phenomena, between twenty and three hundred tiny translucent mantids emerge dangling from a fine silky thread. Upon close examination, the mantis nymphs are remarkably well formed and proportioned. Unlike so many creatures, including most mammals and insects, mantises begin their lives in almost the precise image of its adult body.

As with most creatures, mantids grow over time. Unlike mammals, they do not grow slowly and evenly, but rather undergo ecdysis several times throughout their maturation until they reach their adult form. This process, known as molting, is the literal shedding of the insect’s exoskeleton. In preparation for a molt, mantids climb to an elevated position, hang upside down, wriggle their abdomen rhythmically, and carefully crawl out of their dermal jackets.

With each molt, the mantis grows; however, the original proportions and image of its nymphal state are preserved, with the exception of the development of various secondary sex characteristics. The most significant molting event signifies the mantid’s entrance into adulthood: wings. Upon the mantid’s final molt, small wing buds are shed to reveal impossibly thinly veined membranes. The mantis then flushes these membranes with bodily fluid, causing them to unfurl. However, the rest of the mantis is remarkably identical to its nymphal form.

Molting can be a difficult and dangerous procedure, and an error such can result in the debilitation of legs, joints, wings, or any intricately shaped protrusions. A mismolt can be as innocuous a single deformed leg or wing, or as disastrous as a crippling of the raptorial limbs, which can often lead to death. However, with each subsequent molt, the mantis has the capacity to shed its deformed exoskeleton and regrow any parts that are broken or weak.

I would now like to depart from biology and enter the infinitely more interesting world of metaphoric thought.

If we can look past the bug-eyed, the mantid’s developmental progression appears to be an easily adaptable metaphor for our own human development. Foremost, I would suggest that humans, like mantids, begin their lives as a miniature representation of their adult character. That is to say, upon birth, each human possesses a guiding kernel that might be deemed our “essence,” or who we “truly” are. This, in combination with a host of influential environmental factors, is what decides whether we spend our childhood drawing and painting, collecting rocks, reading avidly, or even bullying our peers and causing trouble.

However, just as mantids repeatedly shed their outermost layer in favor of a larger and more robust self, humans undergo this same process. With each new experience, each previously unknown situation we encounter, and each obstacle that presents itself along the way, we molt. Clearly this is literally false (or is it?), but also incredibly true. They say hardship breeds character. According to the mantis, I agree. Thomas Paine writes in 1773, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” (thank you 10th grade US History!)

And we have mismolts. Our exoskeletons often tear and leave leathery pieces bound around joints and limbs and cause all kinds of mangled body parts and perceived degradations of our character. We forget to do our homework. We refuse to do our homework. We miss classes and don’t show up for work. We refuse to do either out of anger and spite. We forget to call on someone’s birthday (or refuse because they didn’t call on yours). We crash cars, lose large amounts of money, cheat on our spouses and generally mess our own lives up- frequently.

But biology is malleable; when young mantids have a mismolt for whatever reason- perhaps the humidity is too low, or the mantis wasn’t quite developmentally ready to shed its skin, or some environmental factor interfered with the process, all is not lost. With each molt, the outermost layer is shed, allowing the mantid’s pure and functional kernel to be re-exposed. Redemption. A second chance- or a third, fourth, or seventeenth; unlike praying mantids, humans do not experience a mere six or seven molting events. We, as adaptable and intelligent mammals, are constantly molting. Always. There is no such thing as a “final molt,” for we are infinitely evolving, adding to our character and knowledge of ourselves and the world. This, I believe, is the most integral and fundamentally intrinsic human character: infinite molting capacity.

That all being said, I encourage all of you, my proverbial royal readers, to actively molt. Seek out new experiences, do things that you’ve never thought to do- make a bucket list every day or every week or every ten years- and repeatedly add new layers to that kernel that guides your way. Take advantage of our infinite human capacity to grow and heal. Mess up. Make mistakes, experience hardship, climb over Kilamanjaro until your oxygen tank runs out or you get paged for work or you stub your toe or something. Try to avoid those big mistakes- our biology is impressively resilient, but there is certainly a point at which recovery is increasingly improbable. Keep your raptorial limbs functional and healthy- you’ve got to be able to catch crickets and crawl around and eat your spouse’s heads and all. But trust in your humanity, that even those deep wounds may heal with time and active molting.

Good luck to you all. With the start of the new semester I may blog more intermittently, but check back often! Feel free to leave comments and share your own experiences- molting or mismolting. Until next time,

Final Molt!

Darwin experienced a spectacular final molt today around 3pm. She hadn’t eaten for a few days, climbed to a suitable position, and sat; I was thus expecting a molt and kept the humidity and temperature relatively high- and voila, the dragon queen emerged from her bodily cocoon to reveal two sets of fragile, dewey wings. I’ll let pictures do the rest of the talking.

This is how I found her earlier today:

Welcome to adulthood!

Arachne’s Final Molt: Wings!

Exciting news in the life of Arachne the Indian Flower Mantis. On January 1, 2012, Arachne shed his skin in a final molt, nearly doubling in size and revealing four delicate wings. Post-molt, mantis wings are tightly compacted and must be flushed with fluids from the body in order to unfurl. This is evidently a risk-laden process. During the many hours after the molt (and continuing for 3 days after the fact), Arachne’s wings dripped body fluids but refused to fully unfurl. The tips of both outer shell wings are crumpled, and as an additional malfunction, Arachne’s right raptorial limb appears to have almost broken during the molt. It now is slightly incapacitated and is crusted over on its right coxa.

The reason for difficulty molting may be due to low humidity levels, cold air temperature, or interruption during the procedure. Although I attempted to control for humidity and sprayed the container frequently in anticipation of a molt, the air temperature may have caused the deformities. Mantises are surprisingly resilient, however, and I would not be surprised if the wings continue to unfurl over time.

I expect that Darwin will molt (perhaps also revealing wings) in the next week or two- another mantis post coming soon!