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Scientist finds 19 new species of speedy, clever praying mantises

Welcome to the fold! An entomologist trekking through Amazonian rain forest and sifting through musty museums has discovered 19 new species of praying mantis in Central and South America. The findings, published in the journal ZooKeys, nearly triple the number of known bark mantis species and reveal the diversity of this charismatic insect group.

These insects aren’t your typical praying mantises, said entomologist Gavin Svenson, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The archetypal praying mantis is a fresh, new-leaf green with a tubular body and is seen as an ambush hunter. Not so with the bark mantises, which have brownish, mottled backs and flat bodies that allow them to lie flat against the bark of a tree and hide from predators.

Unlike your garden-variety praying mantis, these bark mantises don’t just sit quietly and wait for unsuspecting prey to come their way -- they’re speedy critters that can quickly chase down a fly or a cricket for a quick snack. They also actively evade their enemies, scurrying around to the other side of a tree if they see someone coming, just as neurotic neighborhood squirrels do. As a last-ditch effort to avoid getting eaten, they even jump to the ground and fall into the dead leaf litter and play dead.

“For an insect, that’s pretty complicated,” Svenson said of the behavior. “I don’t think most people would think an insect would play dead. You can literally find this thing in the leaf litter and poke it and it’ll just lay there.”

But Svenson said that there was relatively little research on the praying mantis, in spite of its high profile compared to other bugs. So he visited countries in South America, North America and Europe to search for mantis species. Some he found while looking though old samples that were close to a century old, that had never been labeled or properly categorized. Others he had to go searching through the jungle to locate. He brought back hundreds of specimens.

[Updated, 6:48 a.m., March 19: Each search came with its challenges. The museum search was painstaking and time-consuming; many samples had been collected decades ago, dropped off at the museum and long forgotten. Looking through them was like sifting through a giant, scientific rummage sale.

"It’s easy to miss stuff," Svenson said. "You’re searching through specimen archives that have been there for a long, long time. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to find."]

In the jungle, these clever insects were fairly skilled at eluding capture. In one instance, Svenson had to poke a branch at an insect entrenched in a tree for three hours in the middle of the night before he could coax it down and nab it.

“Who knows? I probably missed the 20th new species because they’re so difficult to catch sometimes,” Svenson said.

Is there a chance that species discovered in the museum collections may no longer exist in the wild? It’s possible that some have gone extinct or are highly threatened, Svenson said, pointing out that some of the forests where old museum specimens were caught may have been replaced by urban development.

“It has a lot of implications in conservation,” he added.

The new finds bear some colorful names. One insect, named Liturgusa algorei after former Vice President Al Gore to honor his environmental activism, was caught in thick rain forest in northern Peru. So was another named Liturgusa krattorum, after Martin and Chris Kratt of the PBS children’s television show "Wild Kratts," which teaches kids about animal biology. Another, named Liturgusa fossetti, is named after the late explorer James Stephen Fossett. Another named Liturgusa bororum is named after the Bora people, who live in parts of the Amazon Basin. Svenson even got to name two species, Liturgusa tessae and Liturgusa zoae, after his daughters Tessa and Zoey.

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