Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/August 1890/A Queer Pet
|A QUEER PET.|
By ELIZABETH W. BELLAMY.
ONCE, for ten summer days, I had the pleasure of entertaining a strange and most interesting guest, known among the learned as the Mantis religiosa; but the more familiar appellation of devil's-riding-horse, by which he is designated amid his native haunts, seems so appropriate to his demoniacal oddity that the creature might be recognized thereby on sight, without description. He looks much more like a nag for an imp of the Inferno than like a locust at prayer, despite the attitude as of supplication assumed when about to snap up an unwary fly.
I captured my specimen upon the stalk of a common geranium, to the pale-green color of which the hue of his long, slim, grotesque body so closely approximated that it was by the merest chance I espied him. Owing to this accommodation of tint—in summer, like the grass and plants amid which he seeks his prey, and, in autumn, like the twigs and branches whereon he alights—the praying mantis, though by no means a rarity in the fields and gardens of the South, commonly escapes all eyes save the sharpest. My prize was stalking his prey when I espied him. Nothing can be stiller than the Mantis religiosa when he is waiting to spring upon his victim; and at that propitious moment, armed with, a tumbler in one hand and a palmetto fan in the other, I made him my captive. I might have taken him with my fingers easily; but, though I do not believe, as the negroes do, that the bite of the devil's-riding-horse is "bad luck," or that this insect will "curse with blindness" by spitting in its captor's eyes if it can, I have a horror of the creature, and I prefer not to touch it.
By way of introduction to those who do not know the Mantis religiosa, I would explain that he is classed with the Orthoptera, whereby is declared his kinship with the crickets, locusts, roaches, and grasshoppers; yet he is not cheery like the cricket, nor destructive like the locust, nor loathsome like the roach, nor vivacious like the
"Gay little vaulter in the sunny grass."
Nor does he resemble any one of these in personal appearance. Entomologically he is described in an array of big words which say but little for the particular specimen that amused my midsummer idleness. It is not as an entymologist, therefore, that I would portray my queer pet.
To the non-entomological intelligence, then, my captive appeared a pale, yellow-green, miniature demon, about two inches in length, the most of whose body, so to speak, had run to neck. About midway of this "neck"—or pro-thorax, to quote the entomologists—were attached a pair of "arms"—antennæ—with joints like "elbows." Below these joints the arms were divided and serrated, like the claws of a crab. Atop of the long neck the head was set transversely, like the upper portion of the letter T. An extremely flexible joint united this peculiar head to the rigid neck, and enabled the creature to look in all directions, out of a pair of extraordinarily intelligent and watchful eyes, that protruded from each "end" of the head. The mouth was very large, but, in spite of the powerful jaws, there was no expression of ferocity in that rather formidable feature. In normal condition the body proper, which is perceptibly shorter than the neck—so called—should be furnished with four slender, jointed legs, about an inch in extended length; but when under glass my prisoner was seen to be minus the right hind-leg. This deficiency, however, did not appear to interfere in the least with his activity, for he scrambled about his glass cell with a frantic speed that proved five legs as good as six in his case; of course, the two raptorial "arms" count as legs when it comes to locomotion.
By way of beginning my study of his character, I dangled a shoe-button first on one side and then on the other of his prison-house, sometimes at the top and sometimes at the bottom of the glass; and it was then that I discovered the wonder of the tiny creature's eyes, the alertness of his intelligence, the extraordinary flexibility of the minute joint upon which the head is made to turn. He was not at all alarmed by the dangling black button, which he evidently mistook for a particularly choice dinner; but he was plainly puzzled, and finally distressed, by his inability to attain possession of this alluring dainty, seemingly within his very grasp.
So long as the button was in his sight, his whole being was absorbed in the effort to possess it; but, that object removed from his vision, he made the surface of the glass his study, feeling it with his thread-like tongue, and stretching out his anterior, raptorial feet, with an evident air of inquiry, along the transparent walls that shut him in so incomprehensibly.
Of course, the captive could not long remain in such a prison, and at this juncture a small boy came to the rescue. When the devil'sriding-horse is a subject of study, the small boy is an invaluable coadjutor; he quickly becomes expert as a purveyor of delicacies in the shape of living insects, for dead ones the dainty mantis will not deign to accept. The small boy, in this instance, perceiving at once the value of my captive, and the inadequacy of his lodging, forthwith provided a discarded fly-trap of wire gauze, cylindrical in form, six inches in diameter, and about nine inches in height, surmounted by a top of tin. The lack of a fixed flooring was supplied by a bit of cardboard.
The devil's-riding-horse was manifestly pleased with his transference to his more spacious abode, and he looked about him with a very comical air of studious observation. The wire gauze offered no more obstacle to his locomotion than did the glass, but he was plainly puzzled over the difference between the walls of this prison-house and those of the one he had left: for a little while he seemed to be weighing the problem intently, putting out a cautious claw for inquiry, and turning his head with an expression of deep attention from side to side, and pausing every now and then, in his upward course, to examine this strange new surface.
The first meal we offered our fantastic guest was a dead fly, but this he disdained in any way to notice; though he was repeatedly shaken to the bottom of the cage where the dead fly lay, he refused even to see it. Thereafter our fastidious captive had his meals served to him au naturel. The living fly was simply turned loose in the cage, and instantly the devil's-riding-horse was on the alert: warily he crept up the sides of the cage, settled himself in a position to spring, and then the fly would move, and the slow, laborious work of creeping upon his prey had all to be done over again. But the patience of the devil's-riding-horse in pursuit of a dinner is inexhaustible, his perseverance indefatigable, and sooner or later the fly was inevitably his: with a snap like a steel trap, he clasped his victim, and, settling upon his haunches, he stripped off the gauzy wings—but at this point I fled. The small boy, however, had a stouter heart, and presently he announced that the meal was over; the devil's-riding-horse had devoured the fly, every atom, and was licking his claws!
We had a good magnifying glass wherewith to pursue our study of the prisoner, but it was easy enough to discern all his movements, his very expression, with the naked eye. Every one has seen flies go through the performance children call "washing its face," a sight so familiar that we fail to be impressed by it. In the devil's-riding-horse this is a most amusing exhibition. Our specimen would thrust out his filament of a tongue, carefully lick his serrated claws, examine them closely, scratch the back of his head which he twisted from side to side, rub one jaw and then the other, and turn and look at us out of those strange eyes of his, as if to rebuke our impertinent staring. Not infrequently he would end the performance with a mighty yawn—inaudible, of course—and scamper away, as far as his limits would allow. His bearing altogether was calculated to impress one with the idea that he entertained a serene contempt for the whole human family.
Apparently he did not object to his imprisonment, for he showed no disposition to escape when, time and again, the opportunity was offered him; and except when a fly was introduced to his consideration, he usually remained motionless against the side of his cage, as often as not with his head downward. He never, of his own accord, betook himself to the bottom, not even in pursuit of his prey, and he finally came to prefer the tin top of the cage—possibly on account of the shade it afforded—clinging there like a fly to the ceiling. If we inverted the cage, he instantly crawled upward and clung to the bit of cardboard that did duty for a top. Once, when one of his claws was accidentally caught between the cardboard and the tin rim of his cage, he dropped down and stood shaking the wounded member, just as a boy shakes his hand when he has caught his finger in a door; then he licked his bruises, holding up the tiny claw and carefully examining it.
Early on the morning of the seventh day after his capture, his friend the small boy announced that the devil's-riding-horse had shed his skin, and had grown to twice his former size! But this was not strictly accurate. The mantis had indeed shed his skin, which lay in the bottom of his cage like a shrunken and discarded garment, or rather like a sort of abandoned self, so perfect was every feature of the outgrown mask; but the devil's-riding-horse, though wonderfully expanded in his new estate, was not twice as large as we had known him the day before. In other respects, also, he showed a difference: he was beginning to change color; a small brown spot was visible on the back of his folded wings, and in two days more he was as brown as his cage—as brown as any twig he might elect, in his coming freedom, to alight upon. But, strangest change of all, the missing right hind-leg was there, very much shorter than its fellow; and, whereas our devil's-riding-horse had never heretofore seemed to be conscious of his deficiency, he now went lame! However, for yet another marvel, in a few days more, that tardy leg was as well developed as the others.
About this time we discovered that something ailed our prisoner. He clung more persistently than ever to the top of his cage, and could hardly be induced to stir, even for a fly. Still, he would at his leisure make a dash at every insect offered him; but, though he captured and killed his prey, he did not devour it. Therefore, lest he should die on our hands, we decided to release him. For this purpose we took him to the same flower-stand where he had been captured, and on a bare shelf, exposed to the blazing noon, we reversed the fly-trap, leaving it open to the sky. The captive was, as usual, clinging to the tin top of his prison-house, but, the instant he perceived himself at the abhorred bottom, he began to crawl up the side of the cage.
Now, we had expected that the release of this prisoner would be a very tame affair of ready wings; but there was a dramatic surprise in store for us. When we looked to see our mantis 1 spread his sheeny vans for flight," he paused on the tin rim that bound the wire gauze, and lifting that queer head of his until it almost lay back on his neck, he gazed up at the sky; turning slowly from side to side, he took a long survey of the heavens, his vision in no way troubled, it would seem, by the blinding light. After several seconds of this sky-gazing, he shifted his position slightly, and peered down at the depth from which he had ascended; then he looked at the sky again, and again he peered at the bottom of his cage. Evidently he was puzzled; heretofore, when he climbed those walls, he had invariably found a rest at top—tin at one end and cardboard at the other; but this vast expanse of light was a marvel to be* pondered and not too rashly accepted. That mantis never did fly; he crawled around the edge of the cage at last to a spot where it touched a higher shelf of the flower-stand, and, as if he had just discovered that he was a prisoner no longer, scrambled with more haste than discretion up to the next shelf, where a huge black spider, whose lair was just under the verge of the shelf, pounced upon him so suddenly that retreat was impossible. The mantis was taken completely by surprise, and the start he gave was so violent that but for the spider's swift, encompassing arms, he must have fallen backward off the shelf. Thereupon ensued a terrific struggle; the devil's-riding-horse made a brave resistance, but the spider would have proved too much for him, so his late jailer, armed with a broom-straw, separated the combatants. The spider retired to the shadow of the shelf, and the mantis, climbing upon the leaves of a mespilus-tree that reached against the farther side of the flower-stand, disappeared from our ken forever.