Phylogenetic Systematics and Evolution

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Mantophasmatodea

In a newly published paper, Steffen Roth and colleagues are summarizing the current knowledge about the most recently discovered insect order Mantophasmatodea.

Mantophasmatodea mating
Figure 1: Mantophasmatodea in mating position; note the size difference between the smaller male and the female.
Reinhard Predel

The discovery of new species of birds or mammals nowadays is a really rare event and not more than about 10 mammal species have been found in the last 10 years (see external link). In invertebrates and especially in insects, however, almost on daily basis several dozens of new species are described.  But the discovery of a new insect order in 2002, called Mantophasmatodea, was much more spectacular, since no new insect order had been found since 1914.  One has to keep in mind, organisms categorized into different orders are quite distinctive and significant different creatures: like butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and beetles in insects.  

The first mantophasmatodean species were described based on two museum specimens originally collected in Tanzania and Namibia. To date, these insects have been observed at high levels of species diversity and abundance in Namibia and South Africa. Steffen Roth and his colleagues have been traveling several times to Southern Africa to study these insects and it is still surprising for them why they could been overlooked from so many field biologists and naturalists for such a long time. 

Mantophasmatodeans superficially resemble mantises and stick insects. Both sexes of all known species, including fossil species are wingless, which yields a nymph-like appearance. This appearance might be one reason that the Mantophasmatodea specimens were not recognized as members of a new insect order before.

A distinct feature of these insects is the development of large arolia (i.e. adhesive pads on the pretarsi), which are typically held upright; hence, their common name is heelwalkers (Figure 2).

For their studies on the phylogenetic relationships within Mantophasmatodea, Roth et al. collected and analyzed numerous populations that belong to all known mantophasmatodean lineages, including East African populations. These collections not only provided a comprehensive biogeographical overview but also facilitated a comparative analysis of behavior, which was mainly analyzed under laboratory conditions.

In a recent publication in the journal Frontiers in Zoology  Roth and his co-authors review and discuss not only all published data and provide additional information on Mantophasmatodea distribution, ecology, behaviour  and reproductive biology.

Mantophasmatodea are carnivorous insects and as many other predatory insects they consume different types of arthropods, mainly spiders and insects (see video on external link). Apart from hunting, when Mantophasmatodea stalk or walk quickly over very short distances to catch their prey, they predominantly sit and hide, and they rarely walk in vegetation. Most species hide in the centers of bushes or grass tussocks during the day where they literally could beat out of the bushes (Figure 3).

Night observations verified the presence of Mantophasmatodea in the periphery of bushes or grasses during feeding or mating. Living in semiarid areas these insects adopt their life circle on the seasonal rainfalls. The females lay their eggs in pods of foam that form a cocoon, which hardens due to incorporated sand. These eggs hibernate for several months until the next raining season (Figure 4).

Another interesting part of their behaviour that males and females attract each other by using acoustic communication by  using single vibrational calls, which are produced by tapping the abdomen onto the substrate of grass or bushes. Afterwards they perform an extra prolonged mating time which can take up to four days (Figure 1).

The whole publication is open access and can be read here: