Despite its size, a praying mantis is pretty feisty. It can kill and devour animals that are up to three times its size. One of the animals that a praying mantis can very easily prey on is a snake.
Praying mantises usually kill smaller snakes that are about 12 inches long. (While most adult praying mantises only range between 3 to 4 inches long!)
Even so, snakes are not top of the priority list when it comes to the mantises’ diet. They prefer feeding on other insects for the nutritional value. Still, they pretty much consume any animal that contains proteins.
This is especially true for an adult female mantis that has eggs developing in its body. As she needs all the food she can get, she takes whatever comes her way. Sometimes, she will prey on a snake. She will strategically attack and slowly devour the snake using her ultra-sharp mandibles.
How Does a Praying Mantis Kill a Snake?
Praying mantises capture prey through an ambush approach. When it spots prey, a praying mantis disguises itself by hiding in a strategic position. It will then strike at the most opportune time. As it is fast and agile, a mantis almost never misses its target.
Since they mostly live on plants, mantises mostly kill snakes that move among plants. A mantis will camouflage in the foliage until the snake is close enough to attack. The insect then ‘calculates’ the velocity with which it needs to strike the snake and makes a move. Its strikes are so unbelievably fast that the snake can barely react in good time.
When a praying mantis strikes, it uses its front limbs to hold the snake’s mouth and keep it as far away from as possible. At the same time, it uses its hind legs (which are spiked) to skewer and pin the snake in position. This deathly grip makes it almost impossible for a snake to get away. Since mantises are not venomous, they rely on their front mandibles to incapacitate the snake.
While the snake remains incapacitated, the mantis starts eating the part of the snake’s body near the snake’s head. The mantis starts to eat the snake while it is still alive! To fight for itself, a snake may attempt to coil itself around the mantis in an effort to squeeze the predator into yielding, but the tactic hardly works.
Eventually, the snake dies from the incapacitation and being eaten alive. Once the snake is dead, the mantis loosens its grasp on the snake’s head and begins eating its prey from the middle of its body.
4 Hunting Skills of Praying Mantises
A praying mantis is significantly smaller than a snake. Naturally, it is expected that the bigger animal is the predator, and the smaller one the prey. But that’s not the case here. So, what features make it possible for a praying mantis to attack and kill a snake? The features are as discussed below.
1. Praying Mantises are Masters of Camouflage
Mantises are incredibly gifted at disguising themselves. As they tend to live on plants, they tend to assume the form of leaves, branches, and sticks. Some species take it a bit further during the dry season, where they molt to a darkened form that coincides with the blackened landscape caused by bush fires.
Other species, such as the flower mantis, mimic different species of flowers so convincingly that it is almost impossible to tell it and the flower apart. At times, unsuspecting insects looking for nectar fly straight to the praying mantis, falling victim instead.
This feature of praying mantises makes them expert ambush predators. Unsuspecting animals, including snakes, tend to pass close to the anticipating predator, which then pounces and attacks strategically.
2. Praying Mantises Have Great Vision
Mantises are among the insects with the best vision. They possess stereo vision that enables them to see in a more elaborate manner compared to other insects. On top of that, they have a fovea in each of their eyes. This is an area consisting of photoreceptor cells that makes it possible for the insects to focus on images and track them with acuity.
Moreover, the positioning of their eyes allows them a 180 degrees field of vision. They can spot prey from either side of their head very easily. What’s more, they have a pair of compound eyes that consist of thousands of miniature eyes. Therefore, a praying mantis can notice a snake from quite a distance.
3. Praying Mantises have Cat-like Agility
Praying mantises have the agility that can match that of cats. When their prey (in this case a snake) is within target, they attack with such impressive precision that the probability of failure is very small.
They have been observed to contort themselves while diving so that they land on their target in a specific position. In the case of a snake, mantises contort themselves to land with their front limbs on the snake’s head, with the hind limbs placed strategically enough that the prey can’t escape.
4. Praying Mantises are Unbelievably Swift
Since they hunt by ambushing their prey, mantises will wait patiently on a snake until it is close enough to attack. Once they have found a window to attack, they do so in such swift moves that the prey stands no chance of retaliating in good time.
What Snakes Do Praying Mantises Eat?
Praying mantises prey on any snakes that they can easily attack and conquer. They don’t appear pick and choose by species. Usually, they can tackle snakes that are up to three times their size.
They also tend to eat terrestrial and arboreal snakes that spend the majority of their time in and amongst foliage, which is where mantises hide. They’re less likely to be hunting snakes in the desert.
Praying mantises are deceivingly powerful predators. If you don’t know any better, you’d be forgiven to think that they are harmless. However, these insects can attack and devour animals that are up to three times their size, including snakes.
These small insects possess features that make this possible. For one, they are good at disguising themselves in preparation to ambush their prey. They also have great vision that enables them to spot their target from whichever side. Lastly, praying mantises are tactful and agile when it is time to attack.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.