Field Notes: The Violin Mantis (Gongylus gongylodes)

Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam
Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam

A striking name for a striking creature, the generic etymology has mythical roots: in the ‘Hellenica’ it is the name of one of two brothers, one lord of Gambreum, the other Palae. Another character too bears the same name, the Eretrian who entertained Xenophon, writer of the ‘Anabasis’. In the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ it is the name of a Corinthian commander. The specific name is in allusion to its gangly gait and slender form. In lay man’s terms it is also known as the Wandering Violin Mantis due to its body shape, Ornate Mantis and Indian Rose Mantis.

This is one of the most bizarre looking mantises of which there are about 2,400 species belonging to 15 families and 430 genera. All mantises, which are closely related to termites and cockroaches (not stick insects or grasshoppers which bear a superficial resemblance), have triangular heads with bulging eyes supported by flexible necks. Their forelegs are greatly enlarged and adapted for catching and gripping insect prey, though some of the larger species will feed on small lizards, tree frogs and any other prey they can overcome. Their upright posture, while remaining stationary with forearms folded, gives the impression that they are praying. Females are larger than males and often practice sexual cannibalism, eating their mates after / during copulation. In the 1962 novel ‘Island’, Aldous Huxley reflected on the philosophical observation of death watching the mating ritual of a pair of violin mantises.

Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam
Violin Mantis, by Eric Ramanujam

The Violin Mantis is characterized by extremely slender limbs with large appendages. Unlike other mantises it is not particularly aggressive and can often be found in groups without unnecessary cannibalism. Only the smaller male can fly. After mating the female deposits its eggs in an ‘ootheca’ (a type of egg mass containing many eggs and surrounded by foam which hardens into a tough casing for protection). The incubation period varies according to temperature and humidity, though the average duration is about 50 days. The male develops into an adult after 7 moultings, while the female develops after 8. The average lifespan is about 12 months.

To say the Mantis does not confirm to norms would be an understatement – its face alone would lead the uninitiated to believe that either it is a creature from outer space or something vile. All its other behavioural patterns too tend towards this ‘branding’ and it is not surprising that one Tamil name for it is ‘Saithan Kuthirai’, meaning the Devil’s Horse which is similar I believe to parts of Latin America and Mediterranean Europe. And these superstitions are not confined to the afore mentioned countries: African Bushmen, who should know better than their civilized bretheren, are careful never to touch a mantis as they fear the insect’s magical powers. In Japan seeing a mantis can be an omen of death. There are so many more beliefs that I cannot even dream of listing them here. But there is also the flip side of the coin: as the resting posture and hand position of the Mantis superficially resembles respect for God in prayer, Christians believe that the Mantis symbolises spirituality and piety and finding a Mantis in your house means angels are watching over you; Muslims believe that the Mantis always faces the holy city of Mecca.

Eric Ramanujam

Principal Investigator (Faunistics), Pitchandikulam Forest


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