The orchid mantis: a tale of natural history and standing on the shoulders of giants.
By James C. O’Hanlon
Few animals, especially insects, have earned as mythical a reputation as the orchid mantis. Scattered amongst centuries old books, hidden away in musty library basement compactors, are a handful of tales of an impossible insect, more plant than animal. Deep within Malaysian rain-forests, looking more like an elaborate pink flower than a predatory insect, the orchid mantis awaits its unsuspecting prey. It is said to be born from a flower bud, and is so rare that people are lucky to see one in a lifetime.
Inspired by these tales I endeavoured, as a PhD student, to accept the challenge and study, for the first time, the infamous orchid mantis. The way had been paved, albeit vaguely, by gentlemen naturalists of the 19th century. I began by reading the accounts of great scientists such as Wallace, Annandale and Shelford. These pioneers tell of a time when scientists and explorers were one in the same. Along with careful, astute observations on natural patterns and processes are memoirs of voyages into exotic, unexplored lands. Of a time when overseas journeys entailed months long sea voyages. Expeditions required mastering local dialect and negotiations with local tribes. Great beasts of burden hauled supplies cross country as the explorers fought against the unforgiving elements. Malaria and Typhoid were common and accepted risks of exploration into the tropics. Butterfly nets were stored alongside shotguns and constant vigilance was a rule of the forest. Whilst dangers were real, the rewards were immense. To behold sights never seen by westerners before, and return triumphant with tales to be met with awe and disbelief. One such tale being that of the “walking flower”, the orchid mantis.
It was into these great footsteps that I hoped to follow.
My first trips to Malaysia began with excitement, ambition and trepidation. However it was not long before my dreams of continuing in the tradition of the great gentlemen naturalists were quelled and a cold, demoralising reality dawned upon me. My great adventures were not so great, and not so adventurous.
Plans for months long expeditions were passed aside as short excursions on comfortable, well catered airplanes became more time and cost effective. Roaming sim-cards kept me in constant contact with colleagues and family back home as recommended by the university field safety committee.
Economical hire cars ferried us from secure field stations to air conditioned hotel rooms where complimentary wi-fi kept me in contact with undergraduate students requiring assignment feedback.
Wallace didn’t need wi-fi.
To think that I had dreamt of reliving great expeditions of the past, only to find myself sharing taxis with Swedes on their family holiday. How could I call myself an entomologist? But no matter how hard I looked there wasn’t a single flea-ridden oxen at the ready to lug my rucksack up a muddy slope. No expansive homesteads willing to offer board in exchange for my natural charisma and strange western curios. It seemed as if every local I approached spoke impeccable English, and when I enquired about the infamous orchid mantis I received polite smiles and recommendations that I “Google it”.
It occurred to me that we now live in a very different world. Perhaps a world where the romance of natural history been exchanged for creature comforts and fiscal responsibility of universities. Can I ever hope, in this modern world, to be a gentleman naturalist?
I find myself standing transfixed at a forest edge under scorching midday sun. A few feet away, an orchid mantis perches motionless upon a branch. It is unreal. It’s delicate legs, like flower petals, glow under the sun, more captivating than I ever imagined. This impossible insect, that I had seen in so many photographs, read about in so many books, is now right before me. It’s head turns slightly. A bee flies close. Stoically the mantis follows the bee’s every move. The bee flies closer still and the mantis readies its forelimbs. The bee turns sharply, and flies away. The mantis, once again, remains motionless.
I stand here in the footsteps of great scientists that have come before me. Over a century has passed, the world has changed immeasurably, yet the orchid mantis continues to entice and inspire people’s curiosity. And I realise why we become naturalists. To unravel the secrets of unseen worlds. To honor the magnificence of the noble creatures we are so lucky to live amongst. Adventure is incidental. And so we persist on, wi-fi enabled and fiscally responsible as may be, to continue unravelling the secrets of the natural world as proud modern-day explorers.
James C. O’Hanlon