Not suitable for corsage or boutonniere
March 10, 2015 5:17 AM   Subscribe

Secrets of the orchid mantis revealed – it doesn’t mimic an orchid after all
In his 1879 account of wanderings in the Orient, the travel writer James Hingston describes how, in West Java, he was treated to a bizarre experience:
I am taken by my kind host around his garden, and shown, among other things, a flower, a red orchid, that catches and feeds upon live flies. It seized upon a butterfly while I was present, and enclosed it in its pretty but deadly leaves, as a spider would have enveloped it in network.
What Hingston had seen was not a carnivorous orchid, as he thought. But the reality is no less weird or fascinating. He had seen – and been fooled by – an orchid mantis, Hymenopus coronatus, not a plant but an insect.
Now a set of new studies by James O'Hanlon and colleagues shows quite clearly that we’ve been getting it wrong all this time. While it is indeed a flower mimic – the first known animal to do this – the orchid mantis doesn’t hide in an orchid. It doesn’t hide at all. And to an insect, it doesn’t even look particularly like an orchid.
posted by Lexica (23 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
The idea of supernormal stimuli is something we should probably be paying more attention to, considering that civilization is pretty much a huge bag of supernormal stimuli aimed at human perceptual weaknesses.
posted by localroger at 5:43 AM on March 10, 2015 [12 favorites]


This reminds me of The Thirteen Gun Salute, when Maturin climbs to a volcanic crater above Pulo Prabang and hangs out with orangutans. (Maturin later dissects the bodies of two villains who had been tormenting Aubrey for several books).
posted by Nevin at 5:57 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


localroger: I wrote an SF novel where civilization as a supernormal stimulus pretty defines thefictional universe. Needless to say, most of the readers (and reviewers) didn't get it ...

If I'd known about orchid mantises at the time they would for sure have gotten a name check there.
posted by cstross at 6:06 AM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is fascinating. And I think we know what will be in Peter Watt's next novel: "They believe that mantises may not actually precisely mimic a particular kind of flower. Instead they may exploit a loophole created by evolutionary efficiency savings within the insect brain."

Move over Portia!
posted by blahblahblah at 6:09 AM on March 10, 2015


They believe that mantises may not actually precisely mimic a particular kind of flower. Instead they may exploit a loophole created by evolutionary efficiency savings within the insect brain.

Isn't that the case with bird decoys as well? I'm not a hunter, but people I know who hunt often use what to me look like very unlifelike decoys for ducks and geese (including motorized ones that move) but as long as they are arranged correctly and look ok from the air, they seem to work well.

The pictures of the orchid mantis are really neat -- it combines the beauty of both flowers and mantises. I've only ever seen the regular praying mantis, which is neat enough but nothing like this.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:32 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


They are so pretty!

Maybe their trick works on humans too?
posted by Fig at 6:39 AM on March 10, 2015


I am so disappointed. Next, you are going to tell me that honey badgers don't like honey, titmice are not rodents, and sperm whales, well, whatever you tell me about them it's going to fall short of my imagination.

Nature, you are a liar!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:50 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another great exploiter of visual ineffeciencies is the Sargassum fish, which looks just like a piece of floating seaweed, even up close (and especially when tangled inside of said seaweed)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:53 AM on March 10, 2015


The idea of supernormal stimuli is something we should probably be paying more attention to, considering that civilization is pretty much a huge bag of supernormal stimuli aimed at human perceptual weaknesses.

Don't worry about it. Have a cookie. It's sweeter than an apple!
posted by leotrotsky at 7:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Does it look like an orchid to predators?
posted by Happy Monkey at 7:04 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


building on localroger's comment, I suggest Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose
posted by leotrotsky at 7:05 AM on March 10, 2015


localroger: I was at a talk on mundane AI a couple of years back (annoyingly, I can't find the guy's name) where he suggested that, if you want to see what the future of manufactured products that interact with humans, look to Bratz dolls. The cutest machines will be most successful at grabbing human attention, so all machines will trend towards cuteness.

There are many King Charles spaniels in our future.
posted by Leon at 7:05 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


The cutest machines will be most successful at grabbing human attention, so all machines will trend towards cuteness.

The very reason why babies, dogs, and kitties are such successful parasites.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:08 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is really cool, but I have to disagree with the title. I would definitely wear one as a boutonniere if I could get it to stay still.
posted by TedW at 7:12 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm just freaked the fuck out by that well-camouflaged yellow spider. Imagine stopping to smell the flowers and getting a SURPRISE SPIDER UP YOUR NOSE. God, they're probably everywhere else, too. There are probably spiders that look exactly like ketchup packets and pennies and tubes of chapstick, just waiting to terrify you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:13 AM on March 10, 2015 [9 favorites]


Isn't that the case with bird decoys as well? I'm not a hunter, but people I know who hunt often use what to me look like very unlifelike decoys for ducks and geese (including motorized ones that move) but as long as they are arranged correctly and look ok from the air, they seem to work well.

It is! In fact, some of the earliest work with imprinting and shapes used silhouettes that resembled nothing more than toy planes to study how baby chicks respond to overhead stimuli. (And you can even use the same stimulus to make chicks react as if it's a goose or a hawk--all you have to do is change the direction it's moving!)

This is a ridiculously awesome study, Lexica, thanks for bringing it to my attention! I work in this field but I hadn't seen it around myself yet. It's always delightful when people track down the old assumptions that didn't actually get properly studied the first time and check them out to see if things are maybe more complicated than we thought.
posted by sciatrix at 8:03 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


And there's always room for subnormal, highly attenuated stimuli, too -- somebody pointed out a few years ago that spiderwebs often look like the barest outlines of flowers, and seem to attract some insects on that basis.
posted by jamjam at 9:06 AM on March 10, 2015


Oh, man. Can someone please use Metroid Baby's idea and make a big summer popcorn movie? I so want to see a big gorgeous future dystopia with huge arthropods that have adapted to the adscape. So they're racing around through the flood of logos everywhere, morphing seamlessly all the while from Sketchers to Starburst to Pepsi to Peet's. (And eating everybody, incidentally.)
posted by Don Pepino at 9:13 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Don Pepino: it is called Branded. The trailer is great. Do not watch the trailer until after. Most people probably dislike it; most people won't really "get" it. The movie itself misrepresents itself to you as you watch it. I kind of loved it.

This is fascinating, though, and sort of makes more sense; it doesn't really contradict our earlier assumptions about orchid mantises' mimicry, it just makes us aware of how even more awesome and scary and successful at it they are. It's easy for us to forget that we spot mimicry that doesn't work on us; it's harder for us to imagine mimicry from the perspective of prey successfully blind to it. That predators would exploit supernormal stimuli in mimicry makes perfect sense.

And yes, crab spiders are pretty much everywhere. But many are very pretty and tiny and delicate, in the flesh--like little creatures made of pale milky glass. Spiny orb-weavers, which get commonly called "crab spiders" (for obvious reasons) are also the clear inspiration for a Metroid enemy.
posted by byanyothername at 10:16 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I reduce the strategy of the mantis to this:

1. Pheromones + looks like a mantis = bugs avoid
2. No pheromones + looks like a flower = bugs avoid
3. Pheromones + looks like a flower = bugs attracted

They hang out near flowers because bugs. They don't hang out among flowers, because lower chances.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:04 AM on March 10, 2015


I wonder if the mantis is aware that his badass disguise is what's bringing in the bacon or if he thinks he is just lucky.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:43 AM on March 10, 2015


I would also imagine that there's a certain amount of camouflage involved here in order that they themselves not get eaten by birds or whatever. Double duty.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:48 AM on March 10, 2015


this is so neat!

and I love spiny orb-weavers. There was one living in the backyard of my parents' place in florida, he was so cute! I named him Herbie.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:11 PM on March 10, 2015


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