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Amazing Video Shows Acrobatics Behind Praying Mantis Jump

Mar 05, 2015 05:02 PM EST
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If there were ever an Olympics for animals, the praying mantis would definitely win the long jump. An amazing new video shows a wingless praying mantis jump in slow motion, shedding light on the acrobatics behind their accurate leaping.

Many flightless animals have evolved diverse ways of controlling their movements mid-air. For example, lizards and geckos rely on their tails, cats rotate their bodies, and certain insects use their legs in various ways. But praying mantises use a different trick altogether - and it's incredible.

From take-off to landing, the jump lasts just a tenth of a second, faster than the blink of an eye. And yet during that time, the creature's body rotates at the rate of about 2.5 times per second.

"This is akin to asking an ice skater who is rotating at the same speed as these mantises to stop suddenly and accurately to face a specific direction," study author Malcolm Burrows of the University of Cambridge said in a press release.

What's more, their landing is right on target every time. Due to their center of gravity, small insects typically spin out of control when they jump. So scientists wanted to know how small insects like the praying mantis are able to jump with such precision.

They watched video after video - 381 in all - of 58 young mantises leaping onto a nearby vertical pole, examining their technique.

Published in the journal Current Biology, it turns out that mantises actually harness the spin of their bodies.

"We had assumed spin was bad, but we were wrong - juvenile mantises deliberately create spin and harness it in mid-air to rotate their bodies to land on a target," Burrows explained in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)


[Credit: Gregory Sutton/Malcolm Burrows/University of Cambridge]

The insects would sway their heads sideways, eyeing up the target, then rock their bodies back and curl up their abdomens, the tip pointing forwards.

But the real key to their movements was in three body parts: their abdomen and front and back legs. During the jump, the mantises rotated their legs and abdomen simultaneously yet in varying directions - shifting clockwise and counterclockwise.

This way, the spin is transferred from one body segment to the next, which allows the body to stay level and on target.

"Maintaining stability so that the body does not rotate uncontrollably in mid-air is a difficult task," Burrows said. "When the movement is rapid, as it is in a jump, and you don't have wings, then the task is even more difficult."

"Nevertheless, a praying mantis moves rapidly and controls the rotation of its body so that it lines up precisely with a target, and does all of this in less than 100 milliseconds," he added.

Then, to test the importance of this twisting choreography, researchers glued segments of the abdomen together to keep it from flexing. They predicted that this would cause the mantis to spin out of control, but that was not the case. Sure enough, the insects still reached their target, though they crashed into it rather than landing.

Next, the researchers plan to find out how the mantis achieves its mid-air acrobatics at such extraordinary speeds, and the brains behind the operation.

"We can see the mantis performs a scanning movement with its head before a jump. Is it predicting everything in advance or does it make corrections at lightning speed as it goes through the jump? We don't know the answer between these extreme possibilities," Burrows concluded.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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