The Meaning of Life is Mantis Shrimp

Please, can I be in your thesis?

Hey, please, can I be in your thesis?


I don’t know yet, Manny. But look, you get a whole blog post all to yourself.   

This requires some explanation.The last essay I workshopped for my first year in graduate school was about the subjectivity of vision, how we can’t really know what other people–or creatures–see when they look at the world, and what that means for our definitions of beauty. Now that it’s summer, I’m starting my thesis, and my first project is rewriting an essay about the pet industry that I wrote back in the fall. I’m cutting a lot of material that I really like, and one of my favorite bits to go was a tangent about mantis shrimp. A few days ago, on my way to Starbucks to hole myself up for an hour of revising this piece, I listened to one of the Podcasts I subscribe to: Radiolab. This Podcast happened to be about colors and the subjectivity of vision. Go figure. I had started debating whether maybe I should start revising the vision piece rather than the animal piece when the show’s hosts began discussing the remarkable eyes of none other than…the mantis shrimp. All of this tells me that the mantis shrimp is either the key to understanding the universe’s mysteries, or destined to be the fulcrum of my thesis. Now I feel rather bad about shrugging him off the way I did, and I figure that, until I know his exact role in my life and writing, I can at least make amends by bearing witness to his greatness here on Bark.

First, the basics: Mantis shrimp are neither mantises nor shrimp, but predatory crustaceans known as stomatopods that live in shallow tropical or subtropical waters. There are over 400 species of mantis shrimp, with sizes ranging from less than an inch to the length of a human forearm. Some are brightly colored, others are brown. And all of that is very interesting (Just go with me here. I’m trying to appease Manny, remember?), but what makes mantis shrimp so unique? It’s this:


Well, it’s like that anyway. Let’s back up for a moment.

Like many crustaceans, mantis shrimp have special appendages used to attack prey and defend against predators, but instead of a pair of shabby ol’ claws, they come armed with deadly melee weapons. Mantis shrimp are divided into two categories: spearers and smashers. Spearers boast a pair of barbed appendages, much like those of a true mantis, that they use to snag prey. Smashers, not wanting to be upstaged, possess one spear and one club for bludgeoning. But regardless of their weapon of choice, all mantis shrimp have a tiny structure in the exoskeleton of their upper arm, just above their spear or club, that makes them truly special. And it looks like a Pringle.

Imagine trying to punch someone underwater. You wind up, and then…Well, if you’re me, that’s about as far as it goes. Overcoming the water resistance enough to land a hit takes an admirable amount of strength. Inflicting real damage is a job for Aquaman…or a mantis shrimp. When a mantis shrimp is getting ready to strike, it tenses the muscles in its arm. These muscles push on either end of the Pringle in its upper arm, compressing it like a spring. When the mantis shrimp is ready to hit, WHAM. The Pringle releases, and the forearm/club/spear is propelled forward at up to 50 miles per hour.

Wait a second…fifty miles per hour?

Fifty miles per hour. That’s enough to break through aquarium glass (usually how aquarists find out they have a mantis shrimp), break open a clam, kill an octopus, and earn mantis shrimp the nickname “thumb splitters.”

You say stomato...


I say stomato. Either way, your thumb is FU---


But wait. This gets scarier.

As the mantis shrimp’s appendage flies through the water at 50 miles per hour, something magical happens: the water around it boils. The resulting bubbles, filled with low-pressure water vapor, begin to collapse under the pressure of the surrounding water. The compression of the vapor means all of those molecules are bouncing off of each other more and more rapidly, which creates heat. And heat, as we all know, is just a form of energy. When the bubbles are compressed to the point of bursting, they release this energy, and the mantis shrimp…creates light. No, I’m serious. So, when a mantis shrimp attacks its prey, it hits it first with one appendage, then with a stream of killer bubbles and death light, then with another appendage, and then with another stream of killer bubbles and death light. Which means that getting your thumb split open by a stomatopod might be the closest thing to being touched by the hand of God. Of course, all that power can backfire. Occasionally, the otherwordly force singes or dents the mantis shrimp’s appendage, in which case it rips its own arm off.

And if you’re not impressed yet, there’s this: Mantis shrimp have the most complex eyes of any creature on Earth. Humans, for example, have three kinds of color receptors, which allow us to see around 10,000 shades of color. Mantis shrimp have sixteen color receptors and can see 100,000 shades, including infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. And they are also the only marine animal known to actively use fluorescence to send signals to one another.

And they sing:  Quite nicely, I must say.


So listen, Manny, I was wrong to blow you off. I had no idea you were such a multi-faceted little dude. I know there’s a place for you in my thesis somewhere. Don’t take it personally that you aren’t in there already. Truth is, it’s easy writing about fish and sexual awakenings and mood disorders. But you? You could change the way people think about everything, and it’s going to take me some time to figure out exactly what to say about you. Until then, there’s a bunch of UFC on Netflix for you, and I’ve got 18 Lisa Frank plush toys on order. Please lower your smasher.




  • Leyna Krow says:

    Wow…what a freaky creature. I’m sure when the time is right, you’ll find a way to include it in an essay. Also, I like the idea that its rage could be appeased with UFC & Lisa Frank toys.

    • Karen Maner says:

      Haha. Not only are they capable of disproportionate violence, they also dole it out indiscriminately. Scientists repeatedly describe them as “belligerent,” smashing literally everything in their immediate vicinity they don’t like the looks of, which I take as a really, really bad sign. Notice that the mantis shrimp in the video runs right up and whaps that red button. Not necessarily intelligence at work.

  • Rachel Hartley-Smith says:

    I think these lovely little creatures made for the annoying subplot running in the paycheck sequel Happy Feet 2 . . .

  • Nicole Hardina says:

    I heard that Radiolab podcast, too. it was amazing. I loved the choral aspect: MANTIS SHRIMP!!!! AAAALLELUIA!!

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