Praying mantises are fascinating insects that have captured people’s imagination for centuries with their unique appearance and hunting behaviors. If you’ve ever encountered one of these insects, you may have wondered – do they actually recognize humans in any way or are we just another potential predator to them?

This article will provide a comprehensive look at the latest scientific research into praying mantis intelligence and cognition to determine if they have the capacity to distinguish humans from other animals.

In short: Current evidence suggests praying mantises can recognize humans to some degree through vision, smell and prior experience, but their brains are simple compared to mammals and they do not form social bonds.

The Vision and Brain Capacity of Praying Mantis

They Have Excellent Vision for Motion and Depth

Praying mantises have incredibly complex eyes that allow them to see very well. In fact, they have what could be called “3D vision” – their eyes allow them to judge distances and depth perception quite accurately (Ask Entomologists).

This helps them catch prey and also recognize other creatures that may pose a threat, like humans. Their eyes are made up of hundreds of ommatidia, each one containing a lens, that gives them a wide field of view.

The placement and positioning of their eyes also allows mantises to see almost 180 degrees around them without having to move!

In addition, mantises can detect even the slightest motion from up to 20 meters away. So even though they may seem still, their visual system is highly complex and allows them to closely monitor their surroundings.

This exceptional vision likely helps mantises distinguish humans from other objects in their environments. Pretty awesome, isn’t it?

Their Brains Are Relatively Simple

Despite having sophisticated eyes, praying mantises have very simple brains. Their brains contain far fewer neurons than fellow insects like bees. Additionally, around two thirds of their neurons are dedicated to visual processing.

This leaves little brain power for higher level cognition and behavior (Harvard Gazette).

So while mantises can clearly see humans approaching, they likely do not have the neural complexity to consciously recognize them specifically. Their instinct is to monitor any large moving creatures as potential threats rather than specifically identifying humans.

Still, their incredible vision and ability to learn from experience (Current Biology) means they may change behavior after repeated exposure to the same human!

Pheromones and Smell

Mantises Can Detect Human Scent

Praying mantises have a highly developed sense of smell that plays an important role in their ability to detect prey, find mates, and even recognize humans. Their antennae contain sensory organs called sensilla that can detect chemical cues in the air, including pheromones and odor molecules.

In fact, mantises can detect prey from several meters away just by scent alone.

When it comes to humans, studies show that praying mantises are able to recognize individual human scents. Researchers found that after being handled by the same person multiple times, mantises would become habituated and no longer show aggressive defensive behaviors in response to that person’s scent.

This suggests they have an impressive capacity to learn and recognize human odors.

Some key facts about mantises’ sense of smell:

  • Their antennae contain thousands of sensilla to detect airborne chemicals.
  • Each sensillum has receptors for specific scent molecules like pheromones.
  • They can smell prey insects from 5-6 meters away.
  • Young mantises primarily use smell to find prey.
  • Adults also use vision in hunting, but still rely on smell.

So next time you interact with a praying mantis, remember that it’s likely getting far more information about you through its keen sense of smell than you might realize!

Scent Plays a Role in Defense and Communication

In addition to detecting prey and predators, the praying mantis’ sense of smell also plays important roles in territorial defense and mate selection through pheromone communication.

When threatened, mantises will often discharge an unpleasant odor from a gland on their thorax. This stinky smell functions to startle predators or warn away other mantises encroaching on their territory. Only the males possess this defensive gland.

For mating, praying mantises rely heavily on pheromones to attract mates. The females produce sex pheromones from a gland at the tip of their abdomen. Males can detect these chemical cues from impressive distances.

Some studies have shown male mantises picking up the pheromones of a female from over 60 feet away!

Key facts about scent and mantis communication:

  • Males have a defensive stink gland to deter predators.
  • Females produce sex pheromones to attract mates from afar.
  • Males can detect female pheromones from 20 meters away.
  • Scent guides males to locate and approach the female.

So in many ways, the praying mantis depends on its sophisticated sense of smell for both defense and reproduction. Their ability to detect and interpret scents is truly impressive in the insect world!

Prior Experiences with Humans

Negative Interactions Lead to Avoidance

Like most insects, praying mantises tend to be wary of large moving creatures that could pose a threat. If a mantis has had previous negative experiences with humans, such as being swatted at or having humans invade their habitat space, they can learn to associate those encounters with potential danger.

Studies have shown that insects like mantises have excellent recognition abilities when it comes to shapes and movements. If they have learned that the large looming shape and movements of a human hand leads to harm, they will likely try to avoid those stimuli in the future.

For example, research from the Journal of Insect Science found that Chinese mantises were able to discriminate between different colored dots moving in different directions. This shows their visual systems are finely tuned to detect details that could indicate friend versus foe.

So if a praying mantis has had its territory or body invaded by human hands enough times, it can indeed learn to recognize humans as a threat. This often leads them to freeze, fly away, or display aggressive postures like reared up forelegs when humans approach.

Positive Interactions Can Result in Tolerance

On the other hand, praying mantises that have had calm, non-threatening interactions with humans can become more tolerant of human presence over time. These positive associations can lead to learned recognition of human shapes and actions.

For example, a mantis kept as a pet or one living in a backyard frequented by slow-moving gardeners may become accustomed to the sights and sounds of human activity. Studies have confirmed insects like flies and bees have neural plasticity and can form positive associations through rewards like food.

2009 research study Showed bees could be trained to recognize patterns and link them to rewards
2021 study Fruit flies learned to prefer odors paired with appetitive stimuli

The same is likely true for smarter insects like mantises. If they associate a human presence with good things instead of harm, they may not see humans as much of a threat. They can discern humans from other animals and tolerate more interactions.

For instance, a mantis perched on a garden trellis watching a gardener water plants nearby. It may eventually ignore that human’s presence altogether if no harm has come to it after many exposures. This demonstrates praying mantises have the capacity to learn visual cues associated with humans and alter their behavior based on prior experience.

Limited Social Cognition

They Lack Complex Social Structures

Praying mantises are largely solitary insects that do not form complex social groups or hierarchies (Peattie, 2009). Unlike social insects like ants, bees, or termites, mantises do not have specialized castes or a division of labor. Each mantis takes care of its own needs independently.

Solitary living likely reflects their predatory lifestyle. Spending time interacting with conspecifics may reduce time available for hunting prey. Additionally, living in groups with other mantises could increase the chance of getting eaten by one another (Lelito & Brown, 2006).

Thus, selective pressure seems to have favored a more solitary way of life.

No Evidence of Human Bond Formation

There is no scientific evidence that praying mantises can recognize individual humans or form affectionate bonds with them. While they may become habituated to repeated human handling, they lack the neural complexity for advanced social cognition seen in social mammals.

In fact, researchers have found their brains are optimized for visual perception of prey rather than social behaviors. For example, a 2018 study showed over two-thirds of their brain is dedicated to processing visual information.

So while mantises may tolerate human contact, they should not be anthropomorphized as having human-like bonds or emotions. Any perceived bonding is likely projection on the humans’ part rather than true social attachment by the mantis.


In summary, praying mantises have excellent vision capabilities and can likely distinguish humans visually from other animals and objects. Their sense of smell also enables them to detect human scent. Through repeated exposure and experience with humans, mantises can learn to associate us with either threat or safety.

However, their small brains limit complex social understanding and they do not form emotional bonds with humans the way some mammals can.

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