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If You Could See How Praying Mantises Hear

Monday, November 13, 2006

In back yards around the region, praying mantises have finished laying their weird, Styrofoam-like egg masses and are succumbing to the season's first blasts of cold air -- but not without a few parting shots.

Shots, that is, by David Yager, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, who has pioneered new photographic techniques to aid his studies of the mesmerizing insects.

Some 2,300 species of praying mantises (also known as "mantids") exist, the smallest just a quarter of an inch long and the largest stretching to seven inches. Most share the highly peculiar trait of having just one ear, located smack in the middle of the chest.

Yager photographs his subjects dozens of times, each shot focused a few ten-thousandths of an inch deeper than the last. A computer melds those views into a single image that is simultaneously focused throughout the insect.

The work has allowed Yager and his students to explore the mantids' inner ear. But as these images demonstrate, Yager's photographic technique is good for a lot more than just a look down a bug's ear canal. Given a chance, it can reveal an insect's preternatural beauty and even hint at -- c'mon, admit it -- a smidgeon of human nature inside that alien garb.

-- Rick Weiss

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