Real Ghosts and How to Raise Them
Time for another bug blog methinks...this one, about that which has become my favorite mantid:
Phyllocrania paradoxa is one of three species commonly referred to as Ghost Mantids, and the most commonly kept species in captivity. This is a tropical African species, found in forested to relatively open and moderately dry habitats across the entirety of the African continent and Madagascar, even supposedly into parts of southern Europe. They prefer living amongst the leaves of trees and bushes, and quite phenomenally mimic the dead leaves of these plants; males and females both possess crinkly head crests and limb appendages, curled and ragged leafy body structures complete with "dried up" looking vein patterns, and come in several different color forms (any number of which may appear from any brood, and they can change colors randomly between molts), from tan or yellowish to various shades of brown (even almost to black) or that odd color a leaf takes on if it dies while still green, as seen in the above and below photo.
Adult Ghost Mantids are sexually dimorphic, readily told apart between males and females; they are often similar in size, but differ in many other traits. Like all mantids, the males tend to be thinner, possess longer wings (and in this case the wings are even semi-transparent, like a half-decomposed leaf), and they bear eight abdominal segments on their underside. They also posse. Females in contrast are fatter with shorter wings (which are not transparent) and a broader triangular thoracic shield, and have only six segments. The head crests are also telltale; males have longer, narrower crests that bend at least twice in jagged, angular notched, while the female crests are shorter, broader (most of the time), and typically only bend once. There are some odd ones out there though; one of my females, the one pictured above actually, has a very slender, smooth, and long head crest, a trait more commonly associated with the related species P. illudens. However, her crest still only has one bend in it, and she bears the same fat body structure and segment count as other females, and is a confirmed sibling to the normal girls I have.
Ghost mantids have a relatively rapid life cycle compared to some other familiar species; from hatching to adulthood they typically pass through eight instars, or seven molts, and this process may take as little as two weeks between the first molts to a month between the later ones; as adults males typically only live for a couple of months, but females may last well over half a year, eight months, or occasionally even longer. Hatchling nymphs are tiny, black (perhaps mimicking ants) and lack many of the fringes or heavily adorned crests of the adults, traits that develop more and more with each molt.
As they are relatively dryland species and tropical, Ghost mantids make fantastic beginner species to work with; a few sprays every couple days with water to allow them to drink, and they'll be fine. Younger instars feed readily on fruit flies, and larger instars will take houseflies, bluebottle flies, or other flying insects (they don't commonly take crawling prey, and prefer it of the flying variety). As they stay relatively small, only about 2-2.5" long at maximum, they can be kept in relatively small containers as well, as small as approximately 6 x 6 inches in height and width. Ghosts are often less cannibalistic than other species too; though it is always recommended to house separately just in case, especially as different instars are more likely to prey on each other, if kept well fed most ghosts can be kept communally, even as adults. They like flying prey, so another camouflaged ambush predator hanging out a couple inches away won't commonly grab their interest. A cage with sticks and leaves to camouflage around is also best if possible, and in particular thin sticks or branches are preferred by females for laying egg cases on.
When it comes to breeding, Ghosts usually readily do the job without coaxing. Males will sexually mature within 1-2 weeks after their final molt, females between 2-4 weeks. All that's needed is to keep the female well fed, and then introduce them to each other; the male will take care of the rest. Once mated, a female will always be fertilized, and if fed well may lay up to one new ootheca every other week and possibly up to a dozen ooths over the course of her lifetime. Oothecae are narrow, light tan to brownish depending on age, and after incubating at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (supposedly they can be incubated at room temperature, but this will take longer) they can hatch at between 5 and 9 weeks or so, producing between 20 and 60 nymphs.
With their strange camouflage appearance and ease of rearing and breeding, it's little wonder these guys are likely my favorite mantis species at the moment. As with all species occasionally mishaps occur and a batch of nymphs may be lost or a mismolt occurs, but comparatively this species carries a low risk of issues from hatching to mating, and as they live longer as adults females in particular make great first-time pets and display animals. They often display quirky habits too; beyond their natural camouflage, hanging motionless or "dancing" back and forth like a leaf in the wind, when disturbed this is one species that is liable to play dead, folding up its limbs and dropping to the ground on its back where it will not move for quite a period of time (unless poked in such a way that their feet grab onto the object poking them, in which case they can be flipped upright as if nothing happened).