Uncover the mysteries of insects in the dark rainforest

National Geographic explorer Leo Lanna hasn’t gone more than a few days without the company of a praying mantis in the past seven years. His living room is a laboratory, housing 50 to 200 insects at any given time, where he dedicates his life to studying, classifying and delicately nurturing them through their natural and mysterious life cycle.

Through its specialist initiative, Projeto Mantis, Lanna and its partner, designer Lvcas Fiat, aim to make the interesting micro-world of insects visible. Through their initiative, the duo joins forces with other scientists, artists and explorers to help research and discover praying mantises across South America, from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest to the Peruvian Amazon.

As a biologist, wildlife photographer, and poet, Lanna combines his passions to shed light on praying mantises and other understudied species to help educate and inspire future generations. Spanning multiple disciplines and using innovative tools, Lanna and Fiat strive to bring together research around mantids, their rainforest habitat and other jungle dwellers, in new ways.

“Sounds, interviews, poetry, drawings” will come together in an immersive Amazon experience down the line, Lanna says.

“It’s all going to be part of what we call a time capsule, and we’re using all kinds of senses. You’re going to be able to explore this world,” he explains. Experiencing tropical wilderness at night is a aspect of the project that he is particularly keen to share.

Walking through the rainforest at night “is like entering a maze,” says Lanna. “Each time, you encounter new things. Every time it’s “wow”.

With a flashlight in hand, creatures usually camouflaged during the day are easier to spot, Lanna says. The praying mantises in particular change their pose, casting shadows on the greenery and making the creatures’ shapes appear. It may sound terrifying, but Lanna is convinced that overcoming fear is the key to breakthrough.

“Without fear, there is nothing surprising,” he encourages. “There’s so much more, a whole new world to see at night.” He adds that limiting exploration to daytime means “being inspired by only 50% of what we have in this world.”

Lanna has been experimenting with new technologies to uncover a colorful universe of flora and fauna living in the shadows, and her team is making their discoveries visible to all.

Under ultraviolet (UV) light, a seemingly sleeping jungle comes to life. Electromagnetic waves stage an electrical ecosystem invisible to the naked eye.

“UV light reveals a world we don’t know much about, and it’s there, it’s all around us,” Lanna raves. This is the first time the technology has been used on such a large scale and for scientific research purposes in the rainforest.

For Lanna and her team, using UV light as an alternative inspection tool has the potential to help discover new species and better understand insect life.

“We expect this fluorescence, given a quick first analysis, to support our understanding of their behavior, habitat use, how they camouflage and hunt, as well as delineate species that look like us visually but may have different UV fluorescence. models,” says Lanna. These are the first known records of praying mantis UV fluorescence to be published.

Their findings, which are currently awaiting review for publication, include the Lanna’s Society-funded project, “Amazonia from Dusk to Dawn.”

In 2021, Lanna embarked on a month-long expedition, capturing nighttime images of insects and other wildlife in Brazil’s Caxiuanã National Forest, with a team including her partner, Fiat, Marina Angeli, Fernando Santos and fellow explorers João Herculano, Pedro Peloso, Silvia Pavan, Daniel Venturini, under a National Geographic Society Collaborative Fellowship.

So far, Lanna alone has identified nearly ten potentially new species of praying mantises and has no plans to slow down. Using UV to discover and learn more about plants and creatures “is just the beginning,” he says. He is also eager to experiment with exploration through sound and the physical senses, while continuing to leverage his scientific skills as much as his artistic abilities.

“There are a lot of people who want to combine the worlds but don’t feel able to express it,” Lanna sympathizes. “The science is the method, but the people do the work. Art is a way to connect people” and a valuable tool to “help people believe science”.

Seven years after the launch of Projeto Mantis, Lanna continues to explore creative ways to share the work of his team, such as transforming the initiative into a future educational institute, his contribution to improving the world.

“When we’re young, sometimes we can wonder if we’re doing something important,” says Lanna. “We can’t change the whole planet, but we can inspire people around us, and hopefully it will inspire others.”

For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a digital content producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling has the power to connect people to shared human experience. In her spare time, she turns to her brush to create visual snapshots that she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.