The orchid mantis, a rare insect that is only found in the rain forests of Southeast Asia, is the only known predator thought to attract its prey by pretending to be a flower. It has finally been caught in the act.
Scientists have been aware of the orchid mantis and familiar with its hunting practices for years. However, only recently have researchers actually proven that the orchid mantis uses its appearance and actions to mimic flowers and lure pollinating flying insects, such as bees and butterflies, close enough to move in for the kill, according to James O'Hanlon – an evolutionary biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
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"The idea that the orchid mantis mimics a flower first came about over a century ago, but it was only ever just an idea nobody had done the experiments to test whether it actually occurred," O'Hanlon, who led the recent study, told LiveScience.com
. "Now, over a century later, we have textbooks and scientific articles stating that mantises mimic flowers as if it was an established fact. I felt it was my job to set the record straight and actually see whether this phenomenon was possible."
Using wavelengths of light visible to flying, pollinating insects, O'Hanlon and his research team found that the orchid mantis's color was indistinguishable from 13 species of wild flowers in the locations were they were found.
The researchers also observed the manner in which flying insects behaved in the presence of the orchid mantis to determine whether or not the insects were aware of the predator's presence and could differentiate it from an actual flower. In more than a dozen cases, the insects flew close enough for the orchid mantis to strike O'Hanlon told LiveScience.
"We now know that not only is it possible for mantises to lure pollinators, but we know that they are amazingly good at it," O'Hanlon told LiveScience. "They can attract even more pollinators than some flowers.
"This is the only animal in the world that we know of that resembles a flower blossom to attract prey," O'Hanlon added. "There are other animals that are known to camouflage amongst flowers and ambush prey items, but they do not actually attract the pollinators themselves the flowers they sit on are the attractive stimulus. The orchid mantis is unique in that the mantis itself is the attractive stimulus. This means the mantis can sit away from flowers, perhaps on leaves or bark, and still lure in pollinators."
According to O'Hanlon, he and his team will continue its research on the orchid mantis; however will shift its focus on how the predatory insect is perceived by animals, such as birds, lizards and snakes that likely view it as prey.
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"It is entirely possible that orchid mantises may avoid getting eaten if predators such as birds and lizards misclassify orchid mantises as a flower, rather than a food source," O'Hanlon added.
The present research will be presented in the journal American Naturalist in January.
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