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10 Eye-Popping Facts About Mantis Shrimp

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"Beautiful" and "deadly" are two descriptors you don’t typically see attached to shrimp. But the mantis shrimp is in a class of its own. This colorful specimen has earned a reputation for being one of the most fearsome creatures of the deep. Here are 10 facts worth knowing about the pint-sized bruisers.

1. THEY’RE NOT SHRIMP.

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Despite their namesake and relatively puny stature, mantis shrimp aren’t shrimp at all. (Neither, of course, are they mantises.) They're stomatopods, distant relatives to crabs, shrimp, and lobsters.

2. THEY PACK A POWERFUL PUNCH.

The peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus) uses two appendages called dactyl clubs to pummel its prey like aquatic Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots—that is, if kids’ toys could punch fast enough to boil water and split fingers to the bone. These wrecking ball "fists" spring forth from their bodies at 50 mph, accelerating quicker than a .22-caliber bullet. At those speeds, the water surrounding them briefly reaches the temperature of the Sun’s surface. When the dactyl clubs hit their target, they deliver 160 pounds of force, smashing through shells like a lightning-fast crab mallet.

3. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF SPECIES.

Mantis shrimp come in a variety of species, and we’re aware of about 550 of them. Stomatopods from different species range in size from smaller than an inch to longer than a foot. They’re usually classified by murder method—either smashing, as detailed above, or spearing. In place of dactyl clubs, spearers have two sharp appendages on the front of their bodies built for harpooning prey. Spear-wielding mantis shrimp don’t move as fast as their club-fisted counterparts (their strikes are about 10 times slower), but the threat of death by impalement is intimidating on its own.

4. THEIR VISION IS UNPARALLELED.

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Peacock mantis shrimp have the most complex set of peepers in the animal kingdom. Each eye contains 12 photoreceptors that allow them to sense different types of color. For comparison, human eyes typically contain three types of light-sensitive cells for seeing red, blue, and green. This has led some to conclude that mantis shrimp perceive the world in a psychedelic rainbow of vibrant color we can’t begin to comprehend. But in reality, the crustaceans are actually worse at differentiating between subtle variations in hue than we are.

A study from the University of Queensland found that when mantis shrimp were shown colors with a difference in wavelength less than 25 nanometers, they had trouble telling them apart. But just because mantis shrimp may not see the variations between powder blue and periwinkle doesn’t mean their vision isn’t extraordinary. On the contrary, their optic abilities are on a completely separate level from ours, functioning more like a satellite than anything found in nature. Scientists believe that mantis shrimp take all the visual information they see into their brains at once without processing it, allowing them to react to their surroundings as quickly as possible. Their independently roaming eyes and trinocular vision also make them excellent hunters.

5. THEY SHARE A SECRET LANGUAGE.

Roy Caldwell, University Of California, Berkeley

 
In addition to the all epic abilities listed above, mantis shrimp are one of the only creatures capable of seeing polarized light. This has allowed them to develop a secret code that’s undetectable to other species. The Haptosquilla trispinosa species of mantis shrimp wields feathery feeding appendages called maxillipeds that are marked with iridescent, blue spots. The cells of these features reflect light in a unique way. Instead of bouncing light into a reflective structure like the polarizing cells developed by humans, the cells distribute light across the spot’s surface. The brilliant light is plainly visible to other mantis shrimp, allowing them to signal members of their species while staying hidden from predators.

6. YOU WON’T FIND THEM IN MOST AQUARIUMS.

Prilfish via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

You’d think a mantis shrimp’s technicolor exterior would make it a staple at most aquariums, but this creature is rarely kept in captivity. The same dactyl clubs that allow them to shatter shellfish are also capable of cracking a glass tank. When aquariums do accept a ruthless specimen into their collection, it must kept behind shatterproof acrylic glass. On top of that, a captive mantis shrimp needs to be the sole occupant of its specially constructed home, lest it decides to treat its tank-mates as punching bags.

7. THEY MAKE MENACING SOUNDS.

Elias Levy via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s only natural that a creature as ferocious as the stomatopod would have a threatening call to match. California mantis shrimp have been known to make low, rumbling growling sounds both in the wild and the lab. Male mantis shrimp often emit grunts at dawn and dusk, the periods of the day when they’re most likely to be hunting for food or guarding their homes. Scientists theorize that the growls are meant to attract mates and ward off competitors.

8. THEY’RE HELPING SCIENTISTS BUILD BETTER BODY ARMOR.

Jens Petersen via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA-3.0

 
The mantis shrimp’s super-powered punching abilities raise a puzzling question: How can the animal deliver such a deadly blow without injuring itself? To get to the bottom of the mystery, researchers looked at the composition of the peacock mantis shrimp’s built-in weaponry. They found that the creature’s dactyl clubs consisted of an outer coating of hydroxyapatite, a hard crystalline calcium-phosphate ceramic material. Beneath the surface lies the key to the animal’s anti-fracturing qualities. Layers of elastic polysaccharide chitin underlying the shell are positioned in a way to act as shock absorbers, reducing the possibility of cracks. The design is so effective that researchers modeled a new type of carbon fiber material after it with potential applications in aircraft panels and military body armor.

9. THEY PRACTICE SOCIAL MONOGAMY.

Barry Peters via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The life of a mantis shrimp isn’t all cold-blooded killing. Some species of stomatopods are known to engage in the rare practice of social monogamy, a behavior that’s especially remarkable among crustaceans. This means mantis shrimp will choose one partner to share food, shelter, and raise offspring with over the course of a lifetime. What may sound romantic to humans serves a practical purpose for mantis shrimp. Research has shown that certain mantis shrimp tend to cluster outside reefs instead of living in the heart of the action. Without the need to go looking for someone new to mate with on a regular basis, mantis shrimp couples are able to enjoy a relatively safe, sedentary lifestyle secluded from predators.

10. THEY’RE OLDER THAN DINOSAURS.

Derek Keats via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Stomatopods began evolving independently from other crustaceans nearly 400 million years ago, about 170 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared on the scene. Since then they’ve followed an isolated, evolutionary lineage that’s resulted in some of their more unique characteristics. Their biology is so bizarre that scientists have assigned them the nickname "shrimp from Mars."

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
7 Fun Facts for Elephant Appreciation Day
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Happy Elephant Appreciation Day! Celebrate the occasion with some facts about everyone's favorite gentle giant. 

1. ELEPHANTS CAN RECOGNIZE OTHER ELEPHANT CARCASSES.

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The University of Sussex's Karen McComb told National Geographic that elephants "become excited and agitated if they come across a dead elephant," and, in particular, will investigate skulls and tusks. McComb teamed up with researchers at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya to study the behavior, showing wild elephants a range of objects that included skulls. They found that the elephants examined skulls—and tusks in particular—of their own kind twice as long as other skulls, and examined tusks six times as long as they did pieces of wood. They were even able to recognize elephant skulls with the tusks removed, but didn't show preference for certain elephant skulls over others, which suggests they didn't know which skulls belonged to their own relatives. "Animals that are intensely social in life may be most likely to display an interest in their dead," McComb told National Geographic. "But what goes on in their minds while they are doing this is a total mystery."

2. THEY'RE SCARED OF BEES.

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Forget about mice scaring off elephants: When farmers need to keep elephants away from their crops, they should use bees. Researchers in Kenya discovered that even the recorded sound of buzzing bees was enough to make elephants retreat—and cause them to emit a low-frequency sound, inaudible to humans, that warns other elephants of the bees' presence.

"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," Lucy King, author of the paper, told The Huffington Post. "The infrastructure doesn't exist in many places and it would restrict animals' movement." But something like a bee fence—hives strung on strong wires a certain distance apart that would move when elephants walked into them, disturbing the hives—"could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops," she said.

3. THEY MIGHT UNDERSTAND POINTING.

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Humans often use pointing as a way to nonverbally get a message across, though not many other animals grasp the concept. But according to a two-month study of 11 tame African elephants, these pachyderms might be able to: When presented with two identical buckets and pointed in the direction of the one containing food, elephants picked up on the cue fairly consistently: Elephants had a success rate of 67.5 percent (1-year-old humans have a success rate of 72.7 percent). But an earlier study of Asian elephants indicated that they don’t notice pointing gestures, which is a bit of a mystery.

4. ONE ELEPHANT CAN "TALK." 

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Koshik, an elephant in a South Korean zoo, developed the ability to imitate the sounds of five words he's heard from his trainer—annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down), and joa (good)—by sticking his trunk in his mouth. The scientists who first noticed Koshik’s ability speculate that he learned to “talk” because he was lonely.

5. THEY'RE DIGITIGRADES.

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It's Latin for "finger walking," and what it means is that elephants walk on their toes (there are five of them, as well a sixth false toe). According to the book Mammal Anatomy: An Illustrated Guidemost of the animals' weight "rests on a broad pad of elastic tissue behind the toes" which "acts as a shock absorber and prevents the skeleton from jolting too much when the animals walk. It also allows elephants to move surprisingly quietly despite their size."

6. AN ELEPHANT PREGNANCY LASTS ABOUT TWO YEARS.

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If you thought being pregnant for nine months was a long time, be glad you're not an elephant, which can be pregnant for up to 680 days, according to the BBC. All that time in the oven has a benefit, though: Elephant calves are born with highly-developed brains, capable of learning their herd's complex social structures and ready to put their trunks to use.

7. NINETY-SIX ELEPHANTS ARE KILLED IN AFRICA EVERY DAY.

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Unfortunately, elephant poaching remains a very big problem: An estimated 35,000 elephants are killed annually, their tusks sold illegally in the ivory market. Do the math, and that comes out to nearly 96 elephants every day. Find out what you can do to help elephants and stop poaching at 96Elephants.org.

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