Sunday, April 16, 2006

Losing their Heads...

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A while back I wrote an article about Roger Caillois' split with the surrealists over a Mexican Jumping Bean which I then followed up with a discussion of whether scientists use metaphor.

I have since been reading a selection of Caillois' work in a fine book called "The Edge of Surrealism".

Caillois apparently started a praying mantis craze among the surrealist poets (Breton and Eluard started collecting them) following the publication of his article on these strange insects. The surrealist poets were interested by the anthropomorphic aspect of the mantis and their femme fatale character.

The praying mantis has a taste for cannibalistic sex. Apparently, the male praying mantis sometimes has its head bitten off by the female praying mantis during sex (and not in the metaphorical sense...)

It's not easy to explain why the female does this. Caillois cites biologists' accounts in order to discount the idea that the female does it in order to give herself a source of protein and prefers to suggest that she is following 'the pleasure principle' since the male performs sex better without his head. This site suggests that the male is unable to pass on his sperm packet until his head is removed because the mating process is controlled by a group of nerves (ganglion) in his abdomen which acts as a small brain, while the ganglion in his head may produce substances that prevent mating. This inhibition is removed when the head is taken off and a headless mantid may even try to copulate with any mantid-shaped object.

According to Caillois, there are quite a number of things a praying mantis can still do after it has lost its head:

- walk
- regains it balance
- sever a threatened limb
- assume the spectral trance
- engage in mating
- lay eggs
- build an ootheca
- lapse into a feigned rigor mortis in the face of danger

Caillois is particularly impressed by the fact that an animal that is effectively dead is still able to pretend that it is dead.

It makes 'death' quite difficult to define, does it not? Is 'a sign of life' actually life?

The praying mantis generally waits for its 'prey' to come to it, swaying randomly on legs that are like stalks blown by the breeze. Here is a story about a large mantis that caught and devoured a humming bird.

1 comment:

Ivy said...

Grisly. But cool.