Beautiful, Terrifying Mantis Shrimp

Thank you to @dorographie on Unsplash for being brave enough to get close to this beautiful terror and take a picture

As if praying mantises weren’t deadly enough (stay tuned), apparently they’ve got a cousin in the ocean who likes to punch through oyster shells for fun.

Think about that for a second. I can’t punch through an oyster shell. You probably can’t punch through an oyster shell. But this tiny, rainbow-colored shrimp is just pulverizing mollusks with its rainbow-colored fists left and right (even shell-less mollusks that get too close: check out this video of a mantis shrimp beating up an octopus).

The power behind a mantis shrimp punch comes from its speed, clocking in at 10 meters per second or about 50mph. These speedy jabs allow the mantis shrimp to not only obliterate the shells of its crustacean and mollusk prey, but also to crack through thick glass – no aquarium time for these angry arthropods. A punch that fast also produces heat, which creates cavitation bubbles where the water was instantly evaporates from speed of the punch and implodes like a tiny backwards firework, causing even more damage to the mantis shrimp’s target.

Maybe it’s best to leave some animals alone in the ocean. I certainly don’t want to go to an aquarium and end up being chased around by a growling firework shrimp that wants to punch me with the same bullet-fists it just used to bust out of its enclosure. And yes, I said growling. No, thank you.

Not all mantis shrimp use their forelimbs for smashing things: some like to impale their prey instead. These crustaceans will lie in wait under the sand or in a concealed crevice until their prey wanders by before leaping out and stabbing through them with an arm. Lovely.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, mantis shrimp aren’t exactly… “mantis shrimp.” While their fast forelimbs are akin to those of a praying mantis, mantis shrimp are not insects but crustaceans. Additionally, they’re members of the order Stomatopoda while shrimp and other familiar crustaceans belong to the order Decapoda. Arthropod nomenclature has failed us once again.

There over five hundred species of mantis shrimp, but whether they’re the size of inchworms or big enough to fill a footlong hotdog bun every single one is either a stealthy-stabber or a firework-puncher, so it’s probably best to admire them from a distance. In fact, every mantis shrimp is basically just colorful, chaotic hodgepodge of superpowers: they breathe underwater (duh), they can hit things really fast (noted), they make water implode (apparently), and just for kicks, they can see many, many more colors than we can (yep… wait what?).

Have you ever looked at your dog and gone, “aw, it’s so sad you can’t see green. You’ll never know what grass really looks like”? Meanwhile, the mantis shrimp is watching your boat pass by going, “man, it’s a shame they can’t see bolgo. Or tyorp. Or flarm. So sad.” Obviously I just made those colors up, but the concept holds true: whereas humans only have three kinds of photoreceptors in our eyes for picking up variations of red, green and blue light, mantis shrimp have twelve. By my judgement, this implies that mantis shrimp can see at least four times as many colors as we can (don’t quote me on that, I’m just making an estimated guess). Mantis shrimp themselves are colorful enough as it is, but we probably don’t even know the half of it. However, scientists have deduced that all that color may be a bit overwhelming for our bullet-fisted friends, as they have more trouble differentiating between different shades of the same color than we do.

Still, I think I’d trade my ability to differentiate between shades of blue to see whatever the combination of bolgo and flarm is any day.

Capable all sorts of wonderful shades are hues that we’re completely blind to; it’s nice to know that there’s more to mantis shrimp than just punching and stabbing. Mantis shrimp are actually pretty romantic too: they mate for life and spend their days hunting together, raising offspring together, and snuggling together in their sandy burrows watching the ocean world float by in all its unimaginably colorful splendor. Mantis shrimp aren’t just clam-bullies either, but actually help keep various benthic populations under control. They also act as canaries in the figurative ocean coal mine, as their sensitivity to pollution makes them good indicators of the health of their habitat.

Speaking of habitat, you may be getting nervous at this point about accidentally bumping into a bullet-fisted firework puncher next time you go to the beach. Mantis shrimp typically live in reefs or near shore in the warm, shallow waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, so if you’re like me and live along the Atlantic coast, you’re safe.

From everything. Seriously, the scariest thing you’re likely to run into is a cannonball jellyfish. We have sharks, sure, but most of the ones I’ve seen people reel in couldn’t fit golf balls in their mouths.

If you live on the warmer end of one of the other coastlines, though, well… keep an ear out for the sound of a quarter smacking cement at 50mph (that’s the best way I can describe a mantis shrimp punching a clam, take it or leave it) and just try to keep your distance. If that thing can bust a crab open with just a few hits, imagine what it could do to your shinbone… Yeesh.

One Comment on “Beautiful, Terrifying Mantis Shrimp

  1. Pingback: Powerful Pistol Shrimp – The ArthroBlogger

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