Why’s this praying mantis smiling… and wearing sunglasses?
I was at a party last weekend and we noticed a praying mantis in a bush. Those of us nearby stopped to watch it. Most humans don’t find insects aesthetically pleasing unless they come in bright colors like ladybugs and butterflies. Praying mantises though are another story. Their form combines elegance and power. We watched relatively quietly with a kind of reverence until the mantis decided to proceed with his evening and leave us to ours.
You can imagine my surprise when I saw a praying mantis in sunglasses, or what appeared to be sunglasses, in the news recently. They were actually 3D glasses. Newcastle University in England was doing a study to try to understand the mechanism by which the praying mantis’s depth perception works. Praying mantises are the only insects known to be able to see in 3D.
As for the eyewear, the fronts are 5mm wide and there are no temples, as the praying mantis has no ears. (Actually the praying mantis does have one single ear, but it’s located where you’d expect its stomach to be and is therefore of no use to keeping the glasses on the insect’s head.) The shades are held on with bee’s wax. They remind me a bit of the shield aviator sunglasses Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were wearing around 10 years ago.
The tabloid celebrity association is no coincidence as I read about the mantis glasses in the Daily Mail:
“Dr Vivek Nityananda, who is involved in the experiment at Newcastle University said: ‘This is a really exciting project to be working on. So much is still waiting to be discovered in this system.
‘If we find that the way mantises process 3D vision is very different to the way humans do it, then that could open up all kinds of possibilities to create much simpler algorithms for programming 3D vision into robots.
‘We can do this by fooling them into misjudging depth, in the same way that our brains are fooled when we watch a 3D movie.’
Analysing how mantises see in three dimensions could give clues about how 3D vision evolved.
It is possible that 3D vision in mantises is closer to that of vertebrates, where disparities between the positions of an object’s image in the two eyes can be detected and used to reveal the object’s position, even when the object is camouflaged and is invisible in either eye individually.
If this is the case, it would mean that mantises have independently evolved similar 3D processing to vertebrates.
Dr Jenny Read from the Institute of Neuroscience, who is leading the project, said: ‘Despite their minute brains, mantises are sophisticated visual hunters which can capture prey with terrifying efficiency.”
In fact there’s a lot of new technology (much of it cheaper and more accessible old technology really) proliferating to enable better 3D mapping. It will have a significant effect on the way we live in the future, for better or worse.
That said, there’s something profoundly unserious about the sight of a big stick insect in sunglasses. It gives me an irresistible urge to post an image of 1970s relief pitcher Kent Tekulve, who physically resembled a big stick insect in sunglasses:
At any rate, here’s some footage of the experiment: