The Snail-Smashing, Fish-Spearing, Eye-Popping Mantis Shrimp

The killer punch of the mantis shrimp is the fastest strike in the animal kingdom, a skill that goes hand in hand with its extraordinary eyesight. They can see an invisible level of reality using polarized light, which could lead to a breakthrough in detecting cancer.

Aggressive, reef-dwelling mantis shrimp take more than one first-place ribbon in the animal kingdom. Outwardly resembling their lobster cousins, their colorful shells contain an impressive set of superpowers.

There are two types of mantis shrimp, named for their attack mode while hunting prey: smashers and spearers. With their spring-loaded, weaponized legs, these predators can crack a snail shell or harpoon a passing fish in a single punch.

The speed of these attacks has earned the mantis shrimp one of their world records: fastest strike in the animal kingdom.

Scientists are finding that another of their special abilities -- incredible eyesight -- has potential life-saving implications for people with cancer.

Mantis shrimp can perceive the most elusive attribute of light from the human standpoint: polarization. Polarization refers to the angle that light travels through space. Though it’s invisible to the human eye, many animals see this quality of light, especially underwater.

But mantis shrimp can see a special kind of polarization, called circular polarization. Scientists have found that some mantis shrimp species use circular polarization to communicate with each other on a kind of secret visual channel for mating and territorial purposes.

Inspired by the mantis shrimp’s superlative eyesight, a group of researchers is collaborating to build polarization cameras that would constitute a giant leap for early cancer detection. These cameras see otherwise invisible cancerous tissues by detecting their polarization signature, which is different between diseased and healthy tissues.

--- How fast is the mantis shrimp punch?

Their strike is about as fast as a .22 caliber rifle bullet. It’s been measured at 50mph.

--- What do mantis shrimp eat?

The “smasher” mantis shrimp eat hard-shelled creatures like snails and crabs. The “spearers” grab fish, worms, seahorses, and other soft-bodied prey by impaling them.

--- Where do mantis shrimp live?

In reefs, from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of Australia, and throughout Indonesia. A few species are scattered around the globe, including two in California.

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