Why you should care
Because sometimes world-changing lessons lie in unlikely places.
They have the world’s most perceptive color vision and can see light that few other creatures in the animal kingdom can. They send invisible messages. They hold a bevy of biological world records and might be called the Deadpool of the oceanic universe.
Their superhero elements are not obvious at first glance, but mantis shrimp are wunderkinds in the scientific world, long beloved by scientists for their uncanny powers. Today, they may be the fodder for a new generation of breakthrough research that uses the shrimp’s abilities to help humanity get some of our own much-needed superpowers. As mantis shrimp reveal ever more, researchers are writing new plans for what to do with their lessons. Some of the possibilities: Mantis shrimp might help us do everything from develop tougher body armor to detect cancer earlier.
“Understanding how biological systems,” like those of the mantis shrimp, as MIT researcher and quantum physicist Jacques Carolan tells OZY, “manipulate the world around them in such novel ways is of fundamental interest in and of itself.”
The principle behind this kind of research is called biomimicry or biomimetics — the idea that in nature we may find models or even raw material for improving human situations. Whether tracking the movement patterns of jellyfish, studying butterfly wings or chasing giant squid, naturalists, biomedical engineers and energy entrepreneurs alike are finding secrets to troubles hiding in plain sight. It just takes an oceanographic detective to notice the first clues.
In the case of the mantis shrimp, David Kisailus, a professor of engineering and materials science at the University of California, Riverside, is one leading Sherlock. His lab first noticed in 2012 that the helical structure enabling the mantis shrimp’s clubs to absorb damaging shear waves — and withstand 50,000 impacts of the same acceleration of a .22-caliber bullet — might be worth knocking off for human use. As Kisailus told WAMC Public Radio, replicating the shrimp’s club structure might result in body armor around a third of the weight and thickness of traditional armor. In fact, that material could do much more than mere ballistic shielding — clubs could be blueprints for airplane and automotive frames with better shock absorption, impact resistance and fuel consumption. (OZY was unable to reach Kisailus for comment.)
The mantis shrimp aren’t just goodies-in-waiting for the defense and auto industry, though. They might also help humans get superhuman vision. Mantis shrimp, as University of Queensland researchers Hannah Thoen and Justin Marshall noted in a 2012 paper, have an unrivaled number of color receptors — the mechanisms in the eyes that perceive color — 12 to humans’ three, which, as Marshall tells OZY, allows them to process more color faster, though with less distinction. Rather than closely comparing a few colors, mantis shrimp directly register a broad range of them — four times as much input as humans do, according to Marshall.
These crustaceans also see light waves differently: They can convert circularly polarized light, or spiraling waves that are imperceptible to other animals, into visible light. Their secret: quarter-wave plates, which have a broader spectral range than even those used in CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and holographs.
Which means mantis shrimp have a head start on hyperspectral optics — something we humans are chasing as we try to develop applications to better inspect crops and perform early disease surveillance. We already use hyperspectral processing systems to hunt down oil and even to track enemy soldiers by spying their “heat signatures” from above. A team at the National Taipei University of Technology and Lakhtakia is attempting to make devices using the shrimp’s quarter-wave capabilities to get beyond holographs.
Perhaps the most futuristic application of the mantis shrimp’s capabilities comes from work done by Marshall and Washington University’s Viktor Gruev — it’s an endoscope camera successfully proven to detect cancer earlier by mimicking the way the shrimp processes circularly polarized light, Gruev tells OZY. Marshall sees opportunities for integrating the technology into cellphone cameras one day. Say hello to the fanciest iPhone yet.
Of course, the technologies making use of this research are all in their infancy. And perhaps the strange powers of the mantis shrimp will remain locked within the species. Fittingly enough, as though they know we’re watching, mantis shrimp have shown us another trick: their ability to communicate beyond humans’ five senses. Using reflectors in their shells — the same ones that convert the circularly polarized light — they pass invisible messages between each other. Their techniques, some scientists have suggested, might one day improve next-generation, light-speed computer systems.
While noting the long road to such futuristic ideas, MIT’s Carolan calls them “awesome,” adding that they may “offer new insights into how we could do things,” as with so much in the field of biomimicry. Which makes us think not of the wild futurism that the field can bring us to but rather of a prescient Native American parable: In that lore, it was not Prometheus but an animal, a wise and patient coyote, who brought humanity fire.