Feminism and Cannibalism

By Carl Zimmer | May 15, 2008 1:02 pm


I am a soil scientist and entomologist. My favorite insects/arthropods are praying mantises, psuedoscorpions and spiders. I am also a big time feminist. I find praying mantises to be so fascinating, and while they are extremely adept killing machines, they are also one of the oldest insects around! This tattoo is a metaphor for my independance and tribute to my mantis friends.From Wikipedia: Sexual cannibalism is common among mantids in captivity, and under some circumstances may also be observed in the field. The female may start feeding by biting off the male’s head (as with any prey), and if mating had begun, the male’s movements may become even more vigorous in its delivery of sperm. Early researchers thought that because copulatory movement is controlled by ganglion in the abdomen, not the head, removal of the male’s head was a reproductive strategy by females to enhance fertilisation while obtaining sustenance. Later, this bizarre behaviour appeared to be an artifact of intrusive laboratory observation. Whether the behaviour in the field is natural, or also the result of distractions caused by the human observer, remains controversial. Mantises are highly visual creatures, and notice any disturbance occurring in the laboratory or field such as bright lights or moving scientists. Research by Liske and Davis (1987) and others found (e.g. using video recorders in vacant rooms) that Chinese mantises that had been fed ad libitum (so were not starving) actually displayed elaborate courtship behavior when left undisturbed. The male engages the female in courtship dance, to change her interest from feeding to mating. Courtship display has also been observed in other species, but it does not hold for all mantises.So in fact, the common assumption that all females cannabilize their mates either during/after copulation is debated because most observations of this were in a lab, where the mantis was likely highly aware of her captors. I have a magnet on my fridge with a woman in a wedding dress that says…”Marriage? No…I don’t mate well in captivity!”

Carl: For more on mantises and their hungry love, see my article in the New York Times.

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Comments (7)

  1. JR

    That is absolutely gorgeous. I love the pink with the green. And the “props” lying around in the background set the scene, too.

  2. Your additional comments from wikipedia, delineating both factual and false conjecture about mantids reminds me of a film and a book , and to wonder at the extent to which biology informs not only our imaginations but also to what extent the behavior is true in hominids as Jane Goodall came to be shocked by her beloved chimps ! That we are indelibly marked in our behavior by our evolutionary descent from apes goes without saying, but is our behavior also informed by insectivore elements in our DNA ?
    The film, “Basic Instinct” with Sharon Stone & michael douglas as criminal psychologist ? & detective respectively – a crime scene identifying copious ejaculate is imagined as a reenactment by the cops, while joking it should be noted,; the stabbing of the male in the head with the ice pick seems to be suggested as the cause of the magnified male orgasm [& presumably but not definitively the female killer’s orgasm].
    Perhaps more relevant, I am reminded of a Frank Herbert SciFi novel “Hellstrom’s Hive” : in one scene [ much less brutal and graphic than the previous ] a powerful & over bearing male from outside the hive colony is selected by the hive’s “queen” as the best mate to invigorate the hive’s gene pool and she injects him with a serum that enhances his orgasmic potential to some sixteen times, which causes him to have heart failure in I assume to be supreme irony on Herbert’s part, by taking a cold shower.
    Well, in any case, I am sure there are many other examples in literature – “sexual cannibalism” [ is that the best term? ] is both scary & fascinating as a biological-sociological study, and psychological study in humans !
    Oh yes, the tattoo is spectacular – I see praying mantises every year, mostly I think in the fall; I always find their brilliant green shocking. And until your comments always believed their devouring the male was completely true in all cases !
    What is also very interesting is that the intrusion of scientific observation so influences the behavior observed : I believe there has been a lot written about that, in fact , I have been struggling to finish writing a short book about that for twenty years !
    “We are not merely observers…. but also actors.”
    I can’t believe this tattoo site has generated so much verbiage on my part. It is not only one of the most visually and intellectually stimulating and wide ranging sites , it is full of wit & humor, and doors to many wonderful things. Thank you Mr. Zimmer ! bc
    Just found your referenced article Mr. Zimmer – I think it confirms that mantid behavior was food for the writers’ imagination .

  3. bill

    so being a zoology undergrad, with the hope of becoming an entomologist, as well as a self-described feminist. are you ah seeing anyone? i promise to provide nuptial food gifts, if you promise not to eat me.

  4. Shawn

    WOW….that’s the most gorgeous color I’ve EVER seen in a tattoo. As a new resident of Portland, OR, I’m going to get something interesting on my forearm, and I’d love colors like you have.

    I do love Mantises, we had lots of them in Tennessee…tiny ones and the huge ones. I love the way their eyes check everything out.

    Anyway, I’m undecided on exactly WHAT image I’ll get, but I’d like it to be as colorful as yours. Is it a certain kind of ink? Your smooooooth skin? (My forearm is fairly smooth, for a guy, and only partially scarred up.) Is the photo enhanced digitally?

    I’d really like to find out how to get those shades incorporated into my design, whether it turns out to be Elvis, a heart, or a snake. Please advise! Thanks.

  5. Jeez… Feminists never fail to amaze me! What a great sense of compassion.
    Reminds me of a joke:
    How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
    A: None- feminists can’t change anything. (ask your husband to do it for you!)

  6. humuhumunukunukuapua'a

    re: bill’s comment….just wonderin’ if “not” was a typo? ;->

    re: superdan’s joke…file that joke in your “not to be repeated” joke file. (not trying to be mean in anyway) it’s really bad man.

    love this tattoo. the artist did an excellent job. simply amazing.

  7. Atrebla

    From one feminist w/ a praying mantis tattoo to another (though mine is of a male praying mantis, because it is in memory of my father): I was speaking to someone who studies some species of the praying mantis – very few of them actually cannibalize their male partners. Only one out of about 1500-2000 species (the mantis religiosa) actually HAVE to do so to mate. With the others, it happens about 5-30% of the time that they do so, and not in most species. Oh well. A few of them still do it. And the urban myth about them certainly instills fear in males.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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