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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."

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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