Leo Lanna: Uncovering insect mysteries in the dark rainforest

National Geographic Explorer Leo Lanna is fusing his passion for science and art to explore and expose praying mantises and other insects in Latin America’s rainforests. 

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

Through his specialized initiative, Projeto Mantis, Lanna and his partner, designer Lvcas Fiat, aim to make the interesting micro-world of insects visible. Through their initiative, the pair partner with other scientists, artists and explorers, to contribute to the research and discovery of praying mantises across South America, from Brazil’s 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 little-researched species to help educate and inspire future generations. Spanning disciplines and using innovative tools, Lanna and Fiat  are working to package research around mantises, their rainforest habitat, and other jungle dwellers, in a new way.

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

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

To walk through the rainforest at night “is like entering a labyrinth,” Lanna explains. “Every 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. Praying mantises in particular shift their pose, casting shadows on greenery and causing the creatures’ shapes to pop. It may sound terrifying, but Lanna is convinced that conquering fear is key for breakthrough.

“With no fear, there is no wonder,” 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 percent of what we have in this world.”

Lanna has been experimenting with new technology to uncover a colorful universe of flora and fauna living in the shadows, and his team is in process of making their findings visible to all.

Under ultraviolet (UV) light, a seemingly sleepy jungle comes alive. Electromagnetic waves put on display an electric ecosystem invisible to the naked eye.

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

For Lanna and his team, using UV light as an alternative inspection tool has the potential to aid in the discovery of new species, and help better understand insect life. 

“We expect that this fluorescence, considering a quick first analysis, will support our understanding of their behavior, the use of their habitat, how they camouflage and hunt, as well as delimitate species that are visually similar to us but may have different UV fluorescence patterns,” Lanna says. His are the first known registers of praying mantis UV fluorescence to be published. 

Their findings, which are currently pending review for publication, comprise Lanna’s Society-funded project, “Amazonia from Dusk to Dawn."

In 2021, Lanna set out on a month-long expedition, capturing nighttime footage of insects and other wildlife in Brazil’s Caxiuanã National Forest, along with a team including his partner, Fiat, Marina Angeli, Fernando Santos, and fellow Explorers João Herculano, Pedro Peloso, Silvia Pavan, Daniel Venturini, as part of a National Geographic Society Collaboration Grant.

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

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

Seven years into Projeto Mantis, Lanna continues to explore creative avenues for sharing his team’s work, such as transforming the initiative into an educational institute in the future—his contribution to improving the world. 

“When we’re young sometimes we can question whether we’re doing something that matters,” Lanna reflects. “We can’t change the whole planet, but we can inspire people around us, and hopefully, this will inspire others.”

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.