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I want the dirt. Is Mrs. Mantis really guilty of biting off Mr. Mantis's head immediately after they consummate their mantis marriage? I hear it's only a vicious rumor and that Mrs. Mantis is getting a bad rap. --Victois McGaw, Chandler, Arizona

The stories about Mrs. M are a little exaggerated, but they're no rumor. And believe me, you ain't heard the half of it. Not only is Mrs. Mantis notorious for chowing down on her man apres romance, sometimes she bites his head off during the act. What's more, it doesn't discourage him in the slightest--if anything, it inspires him to greater heights.

In fairness to Mrs. Mantis, she doesn't always have her mate for lunch. In most of the 1500 species of mantis, in fact, cannibalism is fairly rare. Past reports of mass slaughter were based on observations in the lab, a stressful environment that apparently brought out the female mantis's bad side.

But even in the field, male manticide occurs "more often than not" in Mantis religiosa, the one type of praying mantis "from which the whole group gets its bad reputation," according to one researcher. Here's the scenario: "The male usually tries to approach the female undetected, to seize her unawares, but often he is seen, and the female then catches and eats him, usually beginning at the head. The loss of his head, however, galvanizes the male into action, and he can successfully complete copulation without it. [The male climbs on the female's back and assumes the position before his partner starts to dig in.] This behaviour pattern, in which she devours the male, is of obvious advantage to the female, and to the species, because she is able to put to good use an otherwise worthless mass of protein."

Another writer notes, "If a male praying mantis is decapitated the body will immediately assume the reflex attitudes which are characteristic of copulation." In other words, we are talking about a species that has become dependent not just on cannibalism but on S and M to perpetuate itself.

The spectacle of M. religiosa mating is something no human male can contemplate without emotion. On the one hand, you have to admire a lad who can do his connubial duty under what must be described as very trying circumstances. On the other hand--let us speak frankly here--it is wounding to have a member of the sex described as a "worthless mass of protein." One weeps to think what it does to the ego of Mr. Mantis. Not only does the female of the species not value you for your mind; by the time she gets done with you you don't even have a mind.

Sexual cannibalism is not confined to the mantis. A type of fly known as the Serromyia femorata mates by snuggling up to its partner and engaging in what sounds like an exceptionally vigorous french kiss: "At the end of mating," it says here, "the female sucks out the body content of the male through the mouth." Believe me, I'll never complain about a lack of female aggressiveness again.

Female spiders also eat their mates on occasion, although contrary to popular belief the black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans, et al) is not conspicuously energetic in this regard. On the other hand, black widows do have a tendency to nibble on their kiddies . . . but let's take this up later.

Why do theaters put signs in their lobbies warning the audience when a strobe light is used in the performance of a play? --C. Gray, W. Aldine

Because they're afraid it might induce a seizure in an epileptic, of whom there are maybe 2,000,000 in the U.S. today. The phenomenon is called a "photoepileptic seizure," and it most often occurs when the light source has a frequency of 15 to 20 cycles per second. Why it happens is not well understood, but it's quite common, and in fact strobes are often used to diagnose epilepsy. In extremely sensitive individuals seizures can even result from the play of light through the trees or on water. Photoepileptic seizures often result from TV viewing, particularly when you get close to the screen to change the channel. It may be going a bit far to say that TV causes brain damage, but it sure doesn't help things any.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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