If you could have any super power, what would it be? Most people wish for the ability to fly or to be invisible. But what if you could have the most potent punch on the planet? One that could reach the speeds of a bullet, and take out opponents in one strike.
Or how about the ability to see parts of reality that others can’t. Well, creatures with these powers already exist. And they’re using them to kill in the depths of our oceans…
This beautifully deadly creature is called a Mantis Shrimp, and despite its small size, it will take on any opponent that threatens its livelihood. From octopuses to giant crabs, and even humans! Its punch is so fast that it produces a level of heat comparable to the temperature of the sun, and so strong that it can shatter glass, and rip limbs off of its opponents.
How can such a small creature create such a potent force? What allows these shrimp to see colors that no other species can? And how can we use them to develop advanced technologies?
Mantis shrimp are a type of crustacean called stomatopods, distant cousins of the lobster and the crab. If you were a fellow ocean-dweller, you’d probably do your best to avoid these creatures at all costs, as they’re some of the fiercest predators around. To put it in perspective, their species is divided into two classifications, based on how they would go about killing you.
First up are the Smashers. They deliver powerful punches that knock their opponents unconscious and then they rip their limbs off. They can launch their fists, called “dactyl clubs,” at speeds of 80 kmph (50mph,) that’s faster than a .22 caliber bullet. These punches deliver 730 kg (160 lbs) of force, enough to jailbreak them out of glass enclosures or split human fingers down to the bone.
Then there are the Spearers, which kill their prey using, you guessed it: spears! OK, they’re not the most creative names, but if you just took a second to laugh at that, it would already be too late for you. Spearers can’t strike as quickly as their smashing counterparts, but they can still impale their prey in a mere 20 to 30 milliseconds.
Spearers hunt with two sharp, barbed appendages on the front of their bodies. But unlike Smashers, Spearers are ambush predators, which means that they wait patiently in their burrows until they can snatch up any soft, fast-moving prey that passes by.
The power and speed of the smashing and spearing are made possible by the spring and latch system of the shrimps’ limbs. One muscle compresses the spring and builds up energy, while a second muscle holds the latch in place. When the time is right, a third muscle releases the latch, and all that energy is launched forwards at once.
But none of these hunting feats would be possible without their complex visual system. They have the broadest visual spectrum in the animal kingdom, being able to detect colors we can’t even see, like ultraviolet light.
We humans only have three color receptors, whereas Mantis Shrimp have about 16. That’s a lot of information to process, and it requires a system entirely different from our own. When we take in visual information, all of the processing is done in our brain, but for the Mantis Shrimp, it’s completed within the eye itself.
This means that its brain is only receiving the necessary information, allowing it to react to what’s in front of it as quickly as possible.
Scientists are trying to mimic the sophisticated sensors of the Mantis Shrimp’s eyes, and hope to develop tiny cameras that can detect cancer cells in their early stages. And that’s not all we can learn from them. We’re also using the shrimp’s shock absorbent shell as a model for lighter, super strength body armor.
So while these colorful crustaceans spell nothing but danger for their underwater neighbors, they’re actually pretty helpful to us.
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