Mantises, along with stick insects (Phasmatodea), were once placed in the order Orthoptera with the cockroaches (now Blattodea) and rock crawlers (now Grylloblattodea).Kristensen (1991) combined the Mantodea with the cockroaches and termites into the order Dictyoptera, suborder Mantodea.

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Mantises are sometimes confused with stick insects (Phasmatodea), other elongated insects such as grasshoppers (Orthoptera), or other unrelated insects with raptorial forelegs such as mantisflies (Mantispidae).

Mantises are mostly ambush predators, but a few ground-dwelling species are found actively pursuing their prey. In cooler climates, the adults lay eggs in autumn, then die.

The order is occasionally called the mantes, using a Latinized plural of Greek mantis.

The name mantid properly refers only to members of the family Mantidae, which was, historically, the only family in the order.

Their elongated bodies may or may not have wings, but all Mantodea have forelegs that are greatly enlarged and adapted for catching and gripping prey; their upright posture, while remaining stationary with forearms folded, has led to the common name praying mantis.

The closest relatives of mantises are the termites and cockroaches (Blattodea), which are all within the superorder Dictyoptera.

The foreleg ends in a delicate tarsus used as a walking appendage, made of four or five segments and ending in a two-toed claw with no arolium.

Mantises can be loosely categorized as being macropterous (long-winged), brachypterous (short-winged), micropterous (vestigial-winged), or apterous (wingless).

Mantises have two spiked, grasping forelegs ("raptorial legs") in which prey items are caught and held securely.

In most insect legs, including the posterior four legs of a mantis, the coxa and trochanter combine as an inconspicuous base of the leg; in the raptorial legs, however, the coxa and trochanter combine to form a segment about as long as the femur, which is a spiky part of the grasping apparatus (see illustration).

Mantises were considered to have supernatural powers by early civilizations, including Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and Assyria.