Mr. Vaughan’s sentiment is echoed by a cadre of researchers who place mantises in a class of their own among the swarming Class Insecta, and who are discovering a range of skills and predilections that make mantises act like aspiring vertebrates.
Praying mantises are the only insects able to swivel their heads and stare at you. Those piercing eyes are much like yours, equipped with 3-D vision and a fovea — a centralized concentration of light receptors — the better to focus and track.
A mantis can jump as unerringly as a cat, controlling its trajectory through an intricate series of twists and turns distributed across its legs and body, all to ensure a flawless landing on a ridiculously iffy target nearly every time.
The mantis appetite likewise turns out to leap and bound, and with scant regard for food-chain decorum.
By the standard alimentary sequence, insects feed on plants or one another, and then birds hunt down insects. But just as there are carnivorous plants like the Venus flytrap, mantises prey on hummingbirds and other small-to-middling birds more often than most people realize.
James V. Remsen of the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University and his colleagues documented 147 cases of mantis-on-bird predation in 13 countries representing all continents but Antarctica — not surprising, Dr. Remsen said in an interview, since there are no mantises on Antarctica.
Hummingbirds were the most common target, but mantises also went after warblers, sunbirds, honeyeaters, flycatchers, vireos and European robins. Large species like the Chinese mantis, which grows to four inches in length, were the most avid avivores, and females were responsible for virtually all the bird-killing observed worldwide.
In two reported cases, females feasted on birds while copulating with males. Sometimes the mantises would tuck in through the bird’s breastbone, but more often they went for the head, Dr. Remsen said.
“They bite in and eat the brains,” he said, “which might imply this is something they’re professionals at.”
Some mantises in North America now seem to view hummingbird feeders as happy hunting grounds. Kris Okamoto, a retired nurse in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., recently came running when the young son of her house painter cried out that a praying mantis had snatched a hummingbird from her feeder.
Seeing that the bird was already dead, its skull pierced, Ms. Okamoto and the boy settled…