The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)


From my second-floor apartment I could see across the parking lot to the creek, and I used to step out on the landing at dusk to watch the fireflies lighting up against the backdrop of the darkening pines and maples and Osage orange trees. One night the miller moths were especially thick around the light fixture on the landing, and I was about to go inside because the furry, knuckle-sized creatures kept bumping me, leaving iridescent streaks of dusty scales on my sweating skin. That’s when I noticed one of them jerk from the arc of its flight and buzz like a disgruntled bee.

There was a beige-painted wood banister along the landing, and a piece of it had grabbed the moth and was chewing its head off. As I looked closer, the carnivorous piece of banister adjusted its grip slightly, and I recognized it as a praying mantis, or mantid, as the entomologists prefer. She held the moth, wings down, before her face and turned to stare at me. She looked like a person wiping her face with a napkin.

The mantid was two and a half inches long and exactly the color of the banister. Her triangular head came to a point in mandibles like two tiny pairs of pruning shears; they were surrounded by four fingerlike palps. She walked on four legs. The front pair of legs, the ones she didn’t use for walking, were covered with spikes and ended in boat hooks, and she held these up before herself. The odd position of mantid forelegs has suggested contemplation or wisdom to many people in different parts of the world. The Greek root of mantid means “prophet.” In Africa and the Middle East, legends of religious and prophetic significance adhere to the mantid. In the United States, its common names include soothsayer. And, of course, it is accused of “praying.”

I trapped the mantid in a gallon pickle jar and brought her inside, adding a few twigs and leaves for her to climb on. By morning she had turned green to match the leaves.

I caught a few miller moths and tossed them in. The mantid climbed halfway up a thick twig and clung there with her middle and hind legs, her big forelegs folded close to her chest. A moth flew near. Her head swiveled to watch its erratic, glass-bumping flight.

She snatched it from the air. I didn’t see it happen; her strike was too fast to see, even as a blur. Scientists say an entire strike lasts one twentieth of a second. I only sensed some startling occurrence, and then the moth was trapped in her spiky arms. She was already biting it in the furry scales just behind its bald head. Mantids generally bite in just this spot, severing the prey’s major nerve, the equivalent of a spinal cord. This surgical technique, which mantids somehow instinctively apply to a wide range of prey, breaks the connection between an insect’s limbs and brain. It’s not necessarily a fatal wound, but it leaves the insect powerless to defend itself.

The moth flapped its wings into a buzzing blur every few seconds while the mantid unhurriedly ate it, starting from the head. The pruning-shear mouthparts worked away, biting out chunks of moth and lapping the juices. The moth’s scales, which had broken into particles of dust when they smeared my hand, looked like little brown feathers when they were whole, and they drifted down in a steady snow.

I kept the mantid for a week or so, frequently feeding it moths. The twig it perched on was unsteady. Sometimes it spun out of place when the mantid struck at a moth. The mantid’s strike, missing its target as the mantid lost her footing, would hang in the air for an instant, giving me a rare look at the process—the arms unfurled, reaching, like a model showing evening gloves.

I had read that mantids eat almost anything, from hornets (they leave the stinger uneaten) to hummingbirds to frogs. One mantid seized a mouse and ate it alive, starting from the nose. (That mantid was five inches long.) I myself had seen them eating black widow spiders; as the mantid devours what passes for the spider’s brain, one spider leg moves up and down as if keeping time to music. I fed this mantid whatever crawled across the landing: a spotted white caterpillar, which held to the grass stem from which the mantid plucked it, bending the stem almost double on its way to death. House flies—she ate only the larger ones. Field crickets that walked up to her boldly like paunchy men in tuxedos. A huge orb-weaving spider with legs striped in silver and gold. She would eat anything she could see moving; I watched her watch the movement before she made the kill.

The mantid is a visual animal, far more so than almost any other arthropod. Her two huge eyes form a human-style face: gaze at her and she seems to be gazing back, as cats and monkeys do. Try the same trick with most insects and, if you can even discover any eyes, you’ll find they don’t give the same impression.

The mantid’s two big eyes, arranged so that both can see forward, give her stereoscopic vision. That means she can see two images of the same thing and, by combining the two, judge depth. That’s the same trick we humans use. The mantid can also see a little bit of color. But her specialty is seeing motion: in order to eat, she has to detect animal motion among wind-stirred leaves. When she sees prey moving, she freezes until it comes close; then she launches her invisibly fast strike. She can see in light or near-dark, but, like many predominantly visual animals, she prefers to hunt by day.

The mantid has a feature unique among insects: the ability to turn her head. A mantid can actually look over her own “shoulder.” This combination of traits— swiveling head, stereoscopic vision, depth perception, and motion detection—causes mantid behavior to resemble that of cats and people more than it does typical insect behavior, at least in matters of food and self-defense. For example, what happens if you thrust your hand toward a person’s face, stopping just short of contact? The first reaction is a flinch. What happens if you try the same thing with a cockroach, a close cousin of the mantid? It runs, changing directions frequently to confuse you. And what if you try the same thing with a mantid? She flinches. Mantids react like people because they see the world in basically the same way.

Visual talents of this sort usually go with a predatory lifestyle. We’re not pure predators like the mantid, but we have the equipment to be. We also have grasping appendages, another frequent predator trait, just as cats have grasping claws and mantids have what scientists call raptorial arms. “Raptorial” is biologese for “grasping.” Few insects can hold prey items as the mantid can.

All of our similarities to the mantid result from convergent evolution, which means that unrelated animals develop similar features because they’ve adapted to similar environmental challenges. The killer whale, a warm-blooded animal built on a frame of bones, is shaped like the white shark, a cold-blooded animal with a cartilaginous skeleton. That’s because they both live in the ocean and eat seals: convergent evolution. Our similarities to the mantid are subtler.

To start with, we both have weak senses except for sight. If you want an illustration of the weakness of your ears and nose, follow a dog around outdoors and try to figure out what he’s alerting to every time he cocks his head or stops to stare. You’ll soon believe yourself deaf and blunt-nosed. If you tried the same thing with a mantid, you would understand her better, even though the dog is, relatively speaking, your first cousin and the mantid a stranger.

The metaphors reveal our visual nature. When we English-speaking humans want to show that we understand something, we say “I see.” But “I hear” is the language of rumor; it means something is possible but unproved. I’m told many languages have analogous sensory metaphors. They reflect the epistemology our bodies teach us.

The mantid is pretty useless when it comes to hearing. Of the approximately two thousand mantid species in the world, many lack ears altogether. In only a few species are both genders equipped with ears. The remaining species—over half the total—exhibit sexual dimorphism. The male has an ear, and the female doesn’t. The mantid ear is unique; each male has only one, which is in the center of his chest. Most animals can tell the direction of a sound because of subtle differences in reception between their two ears, but the mantid lacks this talent. He cannot use his ear to locate food or mates. His vision is, of course, all he needs to hunt prey. He finds receptive females by scent: the females emit pheremones.

To follow this scent, the male flies by night. This fact accounts for his longer wings. The females of most mantid species don’t fly at all. This is where the male mantid’s ear reveals its function. It detects only high frequencies, so it is useless for most defensive purposes, but it does pick up the echo-locating screams of bats. Insectivorous bats eat mantids on the wing. A mantid that hears a bat’s call power-dives to avoid being taken. Since this tactic doesn’t require the mantid to know where the bat is, the single ear suffices. Scientists believe the mantid’s ear, for which no other function has yet been discovered, evolved in response to predation by bats.

The mantid as meal: that brings us to another important trait we share. We’re both predatory animals in the middle of the food chain. The mantid is built to kill, but she can also be killed, and often is.

We sat talking on the porch, and out in the grass at the edge of the light the black cat continually pulled himself into a tight ball and then sprang at some insect floating by. We saw him miss a few moths, and we saw him leap at things we couldn’t see. After a while he came trotting up to the porch with something in his mouth. The something was thrashing its legs in the fur of the cat’s cheeks.

The cat crouched to play with his captive, dropping it on the sidewalk and pinning it with one paw. It was a big green mantid. When the cat raised the paw and looked, the mantid rose on his hind legs, throwing his formidable front limbs into the air to show their red and yellow undersides, and staggered toward the cat, as if to intimidate the feline with its size. Scientists call that a threat display. The cat clapped his paws together on the mantid.

A second later the mantid slipped free and burst into buzzing flight, making a swift, clumsy arc before the cat’s face. The cat sprang to catch the mantid in midair. And when he had his captive wrestled to the cement, he was through playing. He bit and pulled his head back, breaking the mantid in half. The fight went on for another five minutes or so, the black cat eating, the green mantid still waving his limbs in protest. The cat left the spiny forelimbs and a tangle of winged thorax.

The human animal, too, is in the middle of a predatory chain. This idea ticks off a lot of people who, generally because of some religious or cultural bias, think we ought to be the bosses of the animal kingdom. (“Kingdom”: even that bit of taxonomic apparatus shows a human bias toward thinking in hierarchies.)

A skeptical reader may point out that, as he sits in the comfort of his den in the middle of his town reading this book, he’s in virtually no danger of being eaten by anybody. Good for you, sir; you rank with the termite. We humans are safe in our own shelters and towns, just as termites are safe in their mounds.

Another reader remarks that her shotgun elevates her to the status of top predator. You’re right, ma’am; our talent with projectile weapons is a powerful one, and puts us on a par with the rock-chunking baboons. If, however, you encountered any of the predators that really see us as food—not your flimsy North American predators like the coyote or the cougar (though each of those has killed a human or two), but, say, a saltwater crocodile or a white shark—your gun would stand only a slim chance of winning the day for you.

But, a third reader murmurs sullenly, we can kill anything if we team up on it. True, and we often use this trick to eradicate troublesome tigers. They become troublesome by eating a few people—in some cases, a few hundred people. Similarly, baboons pack-hunt leopards, but this doesn’t change the fact that leopards are serious baboon-eaters.

The leopard is adept at shaking the anthropocentrist in all of us, at making us rethink our preconceptions of hierarchies in the natural world and especially our sense of sitting at the top of the heap. The fossil skull of an early man shows the puncture wound characteristic of death by leopard. This cat is far smaller than the lion or the tiger, but he kills far more people. He’s been with us, in Asia and Africa, since before we wrote histories; he was there before we came out of the jungle to walk the savannas, and he’s never shared our conceit that we’re fundamentally different from other apes and monkeys. Today he eats our close relatives, chimpanzees and baboons, just as he ate our ancestors. He still eats us—hundreds of us every year. Some single leopards have killed hundreds of humans. The Panar leopard of northern India, for example, took more than four hundred people. That’s the Indian government’s official death toll, which strictly excludes uncertain cases. Leopards share our enjoyment of sport killing. One in Tanzania killed twenty-six people without eating any of them.

There’s a theory that lions and tigers eat people only after they learn to like the taste of human flesh by scavenging battlefields and plague-ridden villages. Whether that’s true of lions and tigers or not, it certainly doesn’t apply to the leopard, which needs no prompting to add some protein-rich primate to its diet. It’s also claimed that the big cats resort to human-eating when they are too old and feeble to catch their “natural” prey. But among human-eating leopards, healthy, exceptionally large males are common.

The lion and tiger kill by seizing the throat or nose and closing down the flow of air with a patient vise of a bite. This strategy is well suited to hoofed animals, which, once brought down, have little defense. The leopard rarely suffocates his prey. He is used to hunting animals that can scratch and grab at his eyes—baboons, chimps, humans. He has no patience for a caught animal. He bites through the skull for a quick kill.

Like the mantid’s, his strategy aims to break the nervous system. He is built to kill us.

Our mythic prototype of a creature from another planet has round luminous eyes on a face whose other features seem atrophied. That’s the face of a mantid.

Things that are really alien don’t look alien. Look at diatoms under a microscope and you don’t have the feeling of looking at once-living things; the creatures more nearly resemble wallpaper. Do you empathize with a trout, a sparrow, or a lobster? Forms of life that are relatively different from us cause us little or no visceral response. Animals that resemble us more closely— cats and dogs, for example—make some of us feel sympathy, friendship, even love. We understand some of these animals’ motives, because we share them—the visceral pleasure of eating, games based on instinctive hunting and fighting habits, and so on.

The things that scare or repulse us are those that are sympathetically human in some respects, but markedly alien in others. For example, apes appear in a disproportionately large number of horror fantasies, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to King Kong. Apes disturb us with their imperfect humanity. So do dolls. In talking with people about their childhood fears, I have heard many mentions of dolls and mannequins, and the fear seems to center on the eyes: the rest is passably human, but the dead eyes make the thing terrible, at least in the dark. Of course, the human body itself becomes an object of terror as soon as it dies, because it is still human, but not in the way we want it to be.

That archetypal image of the extraterrestrial—bilaterally symmetrical, bipedal, visual—is an unlikely choice if you want to imagine what might really live on other planets. After all, what are the chances of an alien looking almost exactly like any earth animal, and us in particular? But the image makes sense psychologically, for it is us touched up with a few strokes of strangeness.

The mantid spends most of her time looking like a reasonable enough, if slightly sinister, character. She walks along poised to grab something; she reacts visibly to prey; she will try to avoid anyone who offers to step on her. If you persist in threatening her, she will throw her arms in the air and wave them, as if to say, “See how big I am? You’d better think twice about dogging me, buddy.” But sometimes the mantid will show you that, however understandable most of her actions may be, she also has a side alien to us.

The female is the color of jade, her abdomen thick and fleshy. She is mostly still, her feet hooked into the texture of the elm tree’s bark. When I first glimpsed her, I mistook her abdomen and wings for the chrysalis of a monarch butterfly. But as my eyes picked her shape out of the relief map of bark and beetle-chewed leaves, I saw the long stretch of her thorax ending in a plowshare head, at the upper corners of which her amber eyes bulge like beaded water, each of them punctuated with a black period in the middle that resembles a pupil but is not.

The male approaches, angling away from her face to avoid being too easy a target. He is more slender, and holds his hind wings slightly ruffled beneath his green forewings; his angular looks could help him pass for a twig. His eyes are different too, duller, more ascetic. He lacks her mass but is almost as long, perhaps two inches. He walks down the trunk toward her, his body held away from the bark by his four hind legs, which jut out to the sides of his body from his thorax, then turn right angles to meet the bark. His head swivels as he comes, keeping her in view. She watches him, and her mouth-parts work idly.

When he is perhaps an inch away, he stops and begins to sway on his bent legs like a sumo wrestler in warm-up. Her forelegs unfurl slightly, then stop in midair, one slightly ahead of the other. She, too, begins to sway. He walks from side to side before her, sometimes stopping to sway, his wings unfolding slightly and trembling. She watches him walk. Her own movements stop, or perhaps continue too subtly for me to see. He edges around to her side.

Suddenly he runs a good six inches and lunges into the air, his blunt forewings flicking forward to let the transparent hind wings fan out into buzzing flight. She turns her head to follow him with her full-yellow-moon eyes. He lands in the grass, then flaps back to repeat his flying leap. This time he returns and begins to slap the female with his antennae. His head moves from side to side like that of a playful dog fighting his master for a toy. The slender antennae lash her like the proverbial wet noodle, failing to even ruffle her antennae.

She strikes.

Now she is standing still, her blur of motion over so quickly it might seem unreal, except that she is slowly eating the right half of his head.

He stands swaying, his actions only slightly interrupted by the amputation of half his head.

Then, while she is still eating, he crawls onto her back. He seems in this semiheadless state to have found a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. There will be no more showy stunts. His pale penis emerges from the rear of his body, extruded between the plates of his exoskeleton. His abdomen snakes around beside hers and forms a painful-looking curve. They begin to copulate.

Turning her face almost 180 degrees, she regards him for a moment, as if his attentions were a distasteful surprise. Then, twisting with some difficulty, she brings her raptorial forelimbs into position and strikes again. This time she retrieves the remainder of his head and a scrap of his thorax, from which one foreleg dangles.

He doesn’t seem to mind. He stays on her back like some undersized Headless Horseman. I recall my grandfather once showing me a big female mantid and calling it a “devil-horse.”

The copulation continues. It lacks the aerobics of a mammalian encounter. After the insertion it involves, besides the cannibalism, merely clinging and a slight pulsing in the male’s soft abdomen. It may go on for a long time; some couplings have outlasted my patience for watching. The genitals fit so tightly that, if you try to separate the pair, their bodies will tear apart before they disengage.

The female hasn’t finished her meal. She strikes again, removing everything forward of his middle pair of legs. She eats rapidly. His raptorial forelimbs lie on the bark like discarded hand tools. She walks out from under what’s left of his body and stands a few inches away, cleaning her forelimbs with her mouth. The male’s remains crabwalk a few steps. The abdomen pulses faintly. The female picks her steps on the rough bark as she goes away. He stays there, wiggling his abdomen obscenely, staggering in sideways arcs. He will do so until something else comes along to eat him.

Males die a few days after copulation, even if the female hasn’t harmed them. The female will lay eggs in a day or two. She lays them in a gluey substance she squeezes out of her abdomen, all the while moving herself in a spiral like a cake decorator’s bag of icing. Special appendages at her rear end whip the substance into a froth. One egg case takes her a whole morning, and by afternoon the gluey stuff has set like cement. She usually gets at least three cases built before she dies, each containing up to two hundred eggs. Each one looks like a little army barracks. A case is impervious to just about everything except the teeth of rodents and the mandibles of parasitic wasps.

The hardwiring for the entire mating ritual lies in a cluster of nerves in the floor of the thorax. The brain is not involved, except to inhibit the mantid from constantly going through the mating motions. That’s why the male not only can finish without a head, but even performs with more gusto once he’s decapitated. The female can mate headless as well, though that’s rarely necessary. The female can even lay her eggs after she loses her head. The cockroach, a cousin to the mantid, has the same peculiar wiring. It has long been known that roaches are capable of learning; they can run mazes and can even be conditioned to flee darkness and love light. This latter exercise has been replicated with headless cockroaches. They first learn the experiment after their heads have already been removed, and they repeatedly show that the learning has taken. Their learning ability is not in the head.

Perhaps you wonder how the roach can survive without a head. Well, it does need its head for eating. After a few weeks, a headless roach starves to death.

The mantid, which depends on her eyes and specializes in severing a prey animal’s brain from the rest of its nervous system, can survive the devastation of her nervous system and the amputation of her eyes.

Alien, indeed, from the human perspective. Yet, some of the control mechanisms for human lovemaking are low in the spine, not in the brain.

In France, folklore has the mantid pointing lost children toward home. Zulu legend depicts the mantid as a stealer of children. Those two opposite characterizations show how readily we attach motives to the creature whose moves so often resemble our own.

Of course, those two legends also show how silly our anthropomorphic explanations can be. Early entomologists often described the mantid as a hypocrite because she acts as if she’s praying while she’s really plotting the murder of some hapless bug. This is exactly the sort of foolishness contemporary scientists hope to forestall when they advise us not to anthropomorphize at all. Other animals may or may not have mental processes like thought and emotion, the biologists say; it’s best not to assume, and of course we can’t observe such phenomena directly. This position too often gets oversimplified, so that a lot of people recite the “fact” that animals have nothing like human emotion. This idea, common as it is among educated people, is a misreading of the attempt at scientific objectivity, which merely asks that we suspend judgment on the question until we have proof.

We may not have proof, but we do have good evidence of emotional lives in mammals. Apes trained to use sign language sometimes overflow with emotion, saying things along the lines of “You are an unpleasant excrement-head.” Of course, any lover of cats or dogs takes an emotional empathy with these mammals for granted. The theory among some scientists these days is that the emotions of unity—love and the like—developed with the mammal brain, and that the more primitive reptile brain is limited to aggression and other simple feelings.

But what about animals even more alien to us—more “primitive,” as our egos would have it—than reptiles? Do they feel? Science tends to treat these creatures as electrochemical machines. I have had a hint or two of something deeper in my dealings with arthropods. One particular incident made me wonder all over again where the lines are drawn. It also reminded me of a certain overworked quotation—Hamlet to Horatio, about the things in heaven and earth.

It was the rain that drove them up into the daylight world.

In the semiarid region where I live, these beasts must be plentiful underground, but I rarely see them, even when I’m looking under rocks and boards for interesting creatures. The beast’s shape marks it a relative of the cricket, but its back is humped, its forelegs are thicker. There are many such creatures—camel crickets, mole crickets, Jerusalem crickets, all burrowing, seldom-seen inhabitants of the soil. The Jerusalem cricket has a bulbous, disturbingly humanoid head that accounts for the common name child-of-the-earth. But the beast I’m talking about doesn’t completely match the looks and behavior of any of these well-documented insects. Doubtless some entomologist has cataloged it, but I have never found it in a book.

The beast is a gleaming red-brown—it looks as if it might be made of the kind of plastic used for tortoise-shell combs and brushes. I had seen them at the bottom of water meter wells three or four feet underground, and I had seen small specimens above ground a few times, always in wet weather. But I had never seen anything like this.

It was late summer in the wettest year I could recall. Much of the country was under flood. We weren’t flooded in our semidesert, but the black earth had grown a leprous infection of white mushrooms, and every outdoor thing seemed transformed by the wetness into a refractor of rainbows. The world stank with rot and rebirth—a smell delirious and nauseous.

As I pulled my car into the wet driveway one afternoon, I saw the beast crossing the cement. While I was still in the car twenty feet away, I recognized it as the species I’d seen a few times before, but I hardly believed it. The thing was larger than some adult mice I’ve seen. It was the third one I had seen during that wet spell, but the other two had been much smaller. It moved slowly, walking like some deliberate beetle, not jumping as a true cricket would. The proximity of my car disturbed it not at all. I had been hunting rattlesnakes and had several jars in the car for collecting the snakes’ heads and tails. I used one of these to catch the cricket-beast, which walked agreeably into the jar with no urging from me.

I had no special plan for the cricket-beast. I didn’t even know what it was. After checking a reference book, I tentatively decided it must be a type of camel cricket that eats rotting vegetation.

I transferred the thing to a gallon jar half-filled with dirt. I threw in some wet leaves for food. It moved its slow body, heavy as a brass bullet, through the leaves. My family came to the consensus that it was one of the most disgusting things I had ever brought in. Having nothing better to do with it, I figured I would keep it around to look at for a day or two, then feed it to one of the tarantulas that occupied terraria on my utility room counter.

That evening, the rain was at it again, and a mantid squeezed in the back door. He was about two inches long, and gray. I decided to see whether this thin, perfect predator could handle something as large as the cricket-beast. I dropped the mantid into the gallon jar.

The mantid did something I had never seen before. He looked at the cricket-beast and began to run away sideways, keeping his face toward the beast at all times. He seemed scared. Of course, even as I thought this, I accused myself of anthropomorphizing. I still thought the cricket-beast was an eater of plant rot. I recalled dangerous situations in which I had seen mantids— tangled in a black widow’s web, battered by a cat, swarmed by ants, shoved into a jar by yours truly. In none of these situations had I seen a mantid use this body language of apparent fear.

I made chicken noises at the mantid.

The cricket-beast, waving its long antennae, turned toward the mantid. The mantid froze. The beast held its position in the center of the round jar. This is the top-predator position—a tarantula placed in a similar environment will, after a little exploration, take up this same spot in the middle of a container. I said as much to my wife, her sister, and her sister’s husband, explaining that the cricket-beast must be an idiot not to realize what danger it was in.

The mantid took another step away. The cricket-beast, which had been sluggish up to now, leaped. The mantid was knocked wings over teakettle, landing a few inches away. As he tried to regain his “feet,” the beast pounced again. This time it landed squarely on the mantid and bear-hugged him. Then it began to eat the mantid in a leisurely but methodical way, its many mouth parts wiggling like fingers. It chewed the mantid’s face off first, and continued downward, not even pausing at the thick carapace. The four of us watching were amazed and repulsed. The others were not avid bug-watchers, as I am, but the spectacle was so intense in its microcosmic way that no one could stop looking.

In ten minutes the mantid was gone. Nothing remained but his transparent wings. The cricket-beast crawled sluggishly to the center of the jar.