We all know the character: an incredibly beautiful woman that seduces the rough-and-tumble action hero, only for him to later find himself chained up over a lava pit with sharks in it! …Or something like that. A “femme fatal” is the idea of a beautiful woman who leads men to their demise. None are more perfect for this role than the female praying mantis. Praying mantis females practice the art of deception through sexual cannibalism. It’s exactly how it sounds: the male is attracted to the female and tries to make some babies, but instead ends up being devoured. Sexual cannibalism hardly seems like a good strategy for keeping the mantis population up, but some argue it’s merely females taking advantage of every scrap of food they can find… even if it’s a loving male.
|False garden mantis (Pseudomantis albofimbriata). Image by Donald Hobern from Wikimedia Commons.|
For most insects, females are able to attract males with pheromones, chemicals released from an individual that affect other individuals of the same species. For instance, females can emit pheromones that will be telling of their age, reproductive status, and body condition. Males are able to detect pheromones from great distances and these pheromones play a role in allowing a male to determine how attractive a female could be. Before any sexy time can begin, females have to show that they are open to male advances. Showing a male you’ve never met before that you’re interested can be a difficult task- so females typically emit pheromones that are known as honest signals. These signals accurately convey female interest in mating, as well as her reproductive status, age, and body condition. Because the majority of females are being honest, males don’t have to think twice about their mate’s intentions. This is where female deception comes into play. If a female takes advantage of the lack of male wariness, she could end up with an easy meal. This deception by the females is what scientists know as the Femme Fatale hypothesis. This hypothesis explains that female mantises are naturally selected to deceive male mantises, and exploit them as food. This idea hasn’t had much backing evidence until Dr. Kate Barry of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia sought to test this hypothesis with the false garden mantis (Pseudomantis albofimbriata).
After considering the test subjects and how the mantises communicate, Kate expected one of three possible outcomes:
1. There will be no pattern between female hunger and male attraction (if female false garden mantises are not femme fatales and false garden mantis pheromones do not communicate feeding-related information).
2. The well-fed females will attract the most males, while hungry females will attract the fewest males (if female false garden mantises are not femme fatales and females are always honest about their quality and willingness to mate).
3. The hungriest females will attract the most males, while well-fed females will still attract some males (if female false garden mantises are femme fatales and females are dishonest about their quality and willingness to mate when they are hungry).
To test her expectations, Kate gathered juvenile mantises that were close to their adult forms to have many male and female mantises that have no previous mating experience. Once the mantises were adults, females were given different feeding regimens to have a range of hunger. Categories included Good (well-fed), Medium (slightly less fed), Poor (hungry), and Very Poor (very, very hungry). Adult mantises were housed in a circular cage that separated each female individually around the edge, while the males were kept in the center.
|Diagram of cage experiment was conducted in. Image by Britta Bibbo.|
The results of this study concluded that pheromones produced by the females that were very hungry were the most attractive to males. Through deception, the hungriest females are seen as sexier than well-fed, healthy females that are willing to mate! This result is surprising; normally females that are well-fed are seen as “sexier” because they have more nutrients available to them, making them more fertile. Hungry females have fewer nutrients available to them, making them less fertile, and therefore not as “sexy”. These hungry female mantises are advertising themselves as well-fed, fertile, and ready to rock when really, they’re not. Simply put, these results show that males are being catfished, and then consumed. Whether hungry females are actively trying to deceive males or if it’s just coincidental still needs to be looked into, but for now, be thankful for a partner who will see you as more than just a piece of meat!
Barry, K. (2014). Sexual deception in a cannibalistic mating system? Testing the Femme Fatale hypothesis Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282 (1800), 20141428-20141428 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1428