Mantis shrimp focus of research on strange biology

Scientists try to understand how bullet-like claws and elaborate eyes function

The mantis shrimp, a type of colourful marine crustacean, is notorious among animals for having a lightning-fast punch and the most elaborate visual system in the world. This sea creature represents a focal point of active research trying to understand its anomalous nature

   Mantis shrimp have a spring-loaded striking mechanism in their claws, allowing them to hunt prey up to 10 times larger than themselves. As fast as a 22-calibre bullet, the claws generate cavitation bubbles which exert incredibly high forces on their prey when the bubbles collapse. The strike also creates shockwaves, which can stun or kill the victim even if the shrimp misses its target.

The mantis shrimp’s claws are made up of different mineral compositions and are stronger than any synthetic material. Scientists at the University of Glasgow suggest the composite materials of the shrimp’s claws can be used to optimize body armour technology and structures subjected to repeated loading. Researchers from Duke University found that mantis shrimp of the same species exhibit unique behaviour when they fight each other with these claws for territory. The shrimp with more powerful punches were not necessarily the winners. The victorious shrimp, rather, were the ones that landed the most strikes. According to the study, the shrimp engage in such form of ritualized combat as a means of communication and conflict resolution without inflicting injury on their opponents. The researchers suggest this is also a way for them to get information about who is the stronger, more aggressive fighter before they go head-to-head.

Mantis shrimp have the most complex vision yet discovered in any animal, which can see four times as many colours as the human eye. This includes ultraviolet light, which lies just outside of a human’s visible range. The shrimp’s visual system allows them to see in all directions at the same time and to recognize different types of prey and predators. It also enables accurate depth perception to accompany their very rapid movements during hunting.

According to a study published in 2014 by researchers at the University of Queensland, the mantis shrimp’s eyes can detect polarized light, which in human bodies reflects differently off of cancer cells and healthy cells. They found that the shrimp use polarized light reflected from their tails to communicate a territorial claim. The study also suggested the shrimp’s ability to detect polarized light is also used for signaling during courtship and assessing the material properties they are about to hit. The authors also suggest a camera resembling the shrimp’s eyes could be used to capture the light and produce images of cancer cells in early stages. In addition, they said that the mantis shrimp’s visual system could lead to the next-generation optical media that outcompetes our current Blu-ray disc technology.

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