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(Almost) Everything We Know About the Orchid Mantis is Wrong

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Orchid mantises, as the name suggests, look a lot like orchid flowers. The insects trade the drab colors and sharp angles of their cousins for bright floral shades and a rounder, softer shape, giving them an uncanny resemblance to delicate petals. When Western scientists first encountered them in Southeast Asia in the late 18th century, more a few mistook them for carnivorous plants at first glance. 

Naturalists soon began describing the insect as an aggressive mimic that uses its floral disguise to hide among orchids and devour bugs that come to pollinate them. Over the last 200 years, this idea has become enshrined as fact in textbooks and nature documentaries. There’s one hitch, though—there’s little to no evidence that it’s true. 

The bug was and still is rare, and with few specimens to study, 18th and 19th century scientists based their conclusions on just a handful of observations and accounts from travelers. Whether or not the mantis actually mimics flowers and which flower it bases its supposed disguise on are questions that haven’t been experimentally tested until now, and a series of recent studies suggests that we’ve had the mantis’ M.O. pretty wrong this whole time. 

The naturalists of yore had at least one thing right. In 2013, Australian biologists (including Marie Herberstein, who has done lots of cool work on animal liars) confirmed that the orchid mantis really does mimic flowers to attract prey, and it’s the first animal known to do that. But a pair of follow-up studies by the same researchers show that the mantis’ hunting strategy doesn’t quite work the way we thought it did. 

For one thing, the mantises don’t need to hide among flowers for their mimicry to work, and they can attract prey just fine on their own. In one study, the researchers found that the mantises don’t have a preference for hunting near flowers or on plain green leaves, and that their hunting success doesn’t differ between the two spots. Being near flowers isn’t necessary to grab a meal, but it does benefit a mantis because abundant flowers mean there will be more prey around. 

The real surprise, though, is that the orchid mantis doesn’t look much like an orchid to anyone but us. In a second study, the team used what scientists know about animals’ visual systems to compare the mantis’ shape and color to different flowers from the perspective of different prey bugs and predatory birds. While early accounts of the orchid mantis often compared it to a handful of plant species that grow in the same forests, the study found that from the point of view of the animals that it’s trying to fool, the mantis doesn’t resemble an orchid or any other specific flower. Instead, it has a generalized “flower-like” appearance that isn’t a perfect mimic of a single species, but a close approximation of several different ones. This might be embarrassing for generations of scientists who thought they knew a thing or two about orchid mantises, but it works out alright for the bugs, the researchers say, because it allows them to fool a wider range of prey and its own predators. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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