When danger appears in the form of a jumping spider, Life Story's orchid mantis juvenile displays impressive defensive moves that any martial arts master would be proud of.

The first instar orchid mantis sways with mesmerising movements that distract its opponent, while showing off powerful forelimbs in a display intended to convince its arachnid attacker that it's a sizeable adversary.

Kung fu characteristics

A mantis embodies many of the characteristics that kung fu experts attempt to master: lightning-fast reactions, unique attack and defence techniques, stealth, strength, a deadly strike and a remarkable success rate.

For mantids, effective defence is vital to improve their chances of survival – dangers are commonplace in a young mantid's world. Within minutes of hatching, young mantids know how to employ a trick that will fool their many opponents.

Faced with a predator such as a jumping spider, the juvenile orchid mantids stretch out their long forelimbs to appear larger and more threatening, in what's known as a deimatic reaction.

Exactly how mantid martial movements play out differs from one species to another. For example, the African mantis twists its lower body, and turns its head and thorax towards the predator, with forelimbs flexed and wings raised to provide additional height.

Ruthless killers

Mantids are fierce hunters, striking quickly and accurately, and using their strong claws to kill prey. They are ruthlessly efficient killers – an instinct so strong that it even extends to cannibalism. 

Similarly, the tiger style in kung fu relies on attacking technique. Strength is a key characteristic of the enigmatic big cats, as is their ability to deliver a lightning-quick strike with immensely powerful claws.

Kung fu experts spend decades building up the muscles in their forearms and hands, but tigers have a head start in this respect. A tiger's large forepaws are supported by dense bones, which help in bringing down the prey target swiftly. 

Graceful moves

Cranes are graceful, long-limbed birds, known for their distinctive defensive and courtship displays. These creatures have a powerful kick, often in conjunction with arching their wings, or crouching.

The 'white crane' is one of the best-known martial arts animal styles. The technique includes blocking opponents with defensive hand movements that imitate the birds’ wing stretching, says Danil Mikhailov, kung fu instructor and author of The History and Philosophy of Kung Fu: an Introduction.

“There are attacking motions where the attack is done with one finger or a few fingers together, which looks like the beak of a bird,” Danil adds.

Speed, accuracy and stealth

Snakes are famed for their deadly strike, and precision is key to mastering this kung fu style. Snake style includes striking your opponent in exposed areas, using quick hand actions. The technique also involves some diagonal stances and swaying, evocative of the predator's movements.

Snakes are also characterised by their ability to change direction with a fluidity and speed that would be highly desirable in any martial art system.

Leopards may be the smallest of the big cats but what they lack in size they make up for in stealth. Leopards are masters of agility and camouflage, able to creep within a few metres of their prey, attacking before it has time to react. It is this deadly combination of skills that make the leopard an aspirational kung fu character.

Many more animal inspired styles of kung fu – such as monkey, lion, crab and bear – are practiced, and the connection between animals and kung fu can be traced back thousands of years.

“You could probably say that mimicking animals was… one of the oldest practices connected to martial arts,” says Mr Mikailov. “It doesn’t really matter what style you do, it’s how hard you work.”

Watch the orchid mantis put its kung fu skills into action in episode one of Life Story at 21:00hrs, Thursday 23rd October, BBC One.