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Mantophasmatodea (Heelwalkers): behaviour

Heelwalkers are carnivores, capturing fairly small insect prey such as book lice (Psocoptera), flies (Diptera), plant hoppers (Hemiptera) and other insects with the enlarged forelegs, which are thickened and armed with spines (as are the midlegs). The eyes are very large, and the prey is stalked before capture.   Most of the South African species are nocturnal, but it is reported that at least some of the Namibian species (Sclerophasma) are diurnal. The former spend the daytime hours hidden at the base of tussock plants (grasses or restios), roaming the surface of the plant during the night to capture prey. They also occur in low shrubby vegetation, such as mesems.

Prior to mating, both males and females communicate via tapping the abdomen against the substrate, making an audible sound. The communication may be heard, but since there are no obvious ears on these insects, it is likely that the signals are vibrational. Females tap with a lower frequency than males.

The male mounts the females very rapidly, gripping her back with his first and mid pair of legs, and extends his abdomen down the side of the female in an s shape. The cerci of the male are used as claspers to bring the genitalia of the sexes close together. At this stage the very large copulatory organ of the male is expanded, and inserted into the female genital tract (vagina). Mating is prolonged, lasting for 1-3 days. In captivity males are frequently eaten after mating, but this may be an artifact of the confinement of the pair in small mating chambers.

The bodies of Heelwalkers are very flexible, and they are capable of bending their abdomens around under their bodies in order to groom all parts, something they do frequently.  Special attention is paid to grooming of the enlarged pad (arolium) at the end of the last tarsal segment. Both of these structures are always held up in the air, hence the common name of Heelwalkers for the order.

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Web page development and text by Simon van Noort (Iziko South African Museum) and Mike Picker (University of Cape Town)


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