19th-Century engraving of a praying mantis
The longest species of praying mantis currently known to science is the giant stick mantis Ischnomantis gigas. Brown in colour, enabling it to blend in with the bushes upon which it lives and lies in wait for unwary prey to approach, this mighty mantid is native to Senegal, southern Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Sudan. The longest specimen on record is an adult female collected in Kankiya, northern Nigeria, which measured a very impressive 17.2 cm long, and is now preserved in London's Natural History Museum.
Ischnomantis media, a smaller relative of I. gigas (public domain)
Africa is also home to the world's largest mantis species, the aptly-named mega-mantis Plistospilota guineensis, native to Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, and Ghana. Adult females grow up to 11 cm long, but are bulkier and heavier (weighing up to 10 g) than those of the giant stick mantis. They also have much larger wings; the wings of females belonging to the giant stick mantis I. gigas are so small that the females are rendered flightless.
But could there be even bigger species of mantid still awaiting formal scientific discovery and description? The reason why I ask this question is that a few years ago I had a first-hand encounter with a mysterious giant mantis, one that I was unable to identify and which has puzzled me ever since. So I am now documenting it here – as an online ShukerNature exclusive – in the hope that someone reading this post of mine may be able to offer a solution.
Mantids of many kinds (public domain)
In November 2008, my mother Mary D. Shuker and I spent four days at the private Shamwari Game Reserve, situated just outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa's Eastern Cape. On the last day of our stay there, just a few moments before the car arrived to take us and some other Shamwari guests back to the airport at Port Elizabeth, one of the safari guides walked over towards where we were all waiting, and squatting on the outstretched palm of his right hand was what I can only describe as an absolutely enormous praying mantis.
Brown in colour and very burly, this extraordinary specimen was so big that it was easily the length of his entire hand, and it was very much alive. Its 'praying' front limbs were moving slightly, and its head turned to look at us as we gazed at it in astonishment. As it made no attempt to fly away, however, I am assuming that it was flightless.
Frustratingly, my camera was packed away in one of my cases, so I couldn't take any photographs of this amazing insect. Nor could I question the guide about it, because at that same moment the car arrived to take us to the airport, so the guide walked off, still carrying the huge mantis on his hand.
19th-Century engraving illustrating a selection of mantids
Needless to say, I have never forgotten that spectacular creature, and I have sought ever since to uncover its taxonomic identity, but I have been unable to reconcile it with any mantis species recorded from South Africa (or, indeed, from anywhere else for that matter!).
So what was this mystery mantis of truly monstrous dimensions? If anyone can provide an answer, I'd love to hear from you!
Mom (on right) with a fellow guest in front of Long Lee Manor, our place of residence while staying in Shamwari Private Game Reserve, South Africa, November 2008 (© Dr Karl Shuker)