A member of the order Mantodea, there are approximately 1800 species of praying mantis, spread all over the world. The praying mantis is so-called because the ancient Greek name is the mantis; and the praying because its forelegs are held in such a position that it looks like it's praying. Actually the forelegs are used for capturing insects, and they have tiny spikes on them.

Praying mantises are pretty vicious little killers -- at full size they're usually about 7 to 12cm long (that's 2.5 to 3.5 inches for our American friends). They're pretty long and spindly, and they move incredibly slowly when approaching prey. It will then, at lightning speed, grab its prey with its forelegs, rip its head off, and eat it (it's easier that way, the insect struggles less). They are also cannibalistic -- both among developing praying mantises and most famously among adults during copulation. The female during copulation frequently rips the male's head off and proceeds to eat him. This does not always happen, but it does happen quite frequently -- it depends exactly how quick the male is ;-).

They have a lifespan of a little under a year. The female lays eggs in egg cases (called ootheca) with about 70 eggs before winter, dies and then they hatch in spring. The immature mantises don't go through a larval stage; rather they go through about 12 moultings. The females if they can't get a male (I wonder why the males wouldn't be interested) can actually produce eggs through parthenogenesis, but all the offspring are female.

There are also a number of other things named after the praying mantis; most notably a style of kung fu, distinguished by a mixture of slow and sudden rapid movements. If you've ever watched the character Lion in the game Virtua Fighter 3, you'll know what this looks like. They actually hold their hands in a position similar to a praying mantis.

There is also a British rock band called praying mantis.