Featured Creature Friday: The Punishing Pistol Shrimp

I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t give shrimp much thought. Sure, they’re an essential part of ocean ecosystems, but I don’t even enjoy eating them, and I certainly don’t want them anywhere near my cocktails, so for the most part they’re not even on my radar, so to speak. If I’m thinking about the oceans I’m usually pondering the terrifying threat of jellyfish, so shrimp don’t even rate a mention. This was clearly an oversight on my part; I’ve been learning lately about a few sorts of shrimp that are packing some deadly firepower. (They may be useful allies when the jellyfish come for us, let us all take note.)

Still from BBC's "Invisible World"

Still from BBC’s “Invisible World”

The Alpheidae are a family of shrimp commonly known as “snapping shrimp,” and the Pistol Shrimp is perhaps the family’s most famous member. It’s a tiny animal, only a few inches long, but it’s packing some serious firepower in the form of a claw with a specialized snapping mechanism that allows it to “shoot” a high-velocity air bubble through the water. That might not sound so intimidating, coming from a tiny shrimp, but trust me when I tell you it’s seriously bad-ass. The Pistol Shrimp’s claw has a jointed “hammer” mechanism which snaps shut with such force that it vaporizes the water in front of it, forming a bubble. The bubble doesn’t go far, only about 4 centimeters, but it travels at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, generating enough force to kill fish, break glass, and knock well-armored opponents on their proverbial asses. The bubble’s real power, though, is in its collapse; in a process known as cavitation, the bubble essentially implodes under the pressure of the water around it, and that implosion not only produces sonoluminescence — a short burst of light which in the Pistol Shrimp’s case is invisible to the human eye — but also generates temperatures nearly as hot as the surface of the sun. The Pistol Shrimp was the first animal that was ever demonstrated to produce sonoluminescence (in a future featured creature we’ll take a look at the Mantis Shrimp — not actually a shrimp — which packs a similar punch and has also been found to generate sonoluminescence).

Still from BBC's "Invisible World"

Still from BBC’s “Invisible World”

The noise of the Pistol Shrimp’s bubble collapsing is brief, less than a millisecond, but the sound produced can reach a staggering 218 decibels; when there are a lot of them in one place, the cacophony is loud enough to interfere with underwater communications and submarine sonar. (The voiceover narration on this video is completely terrible, but it gives you a great sense of exactly how noisy the ocean really is — skip to about 6:00 for some great audio — and snapping shrimp are a major contributor to the noise.)

The Pistol Shrimp uses its awesome firepower to stun, disable, or even outright kill its prey, which it usually hunts from the comfort of its own burrow; it detects passing meals with its antennae, stuns its meal with a bubble blast, and then drags it into the burrow to devour. Lazy bastard. It can also use its pistol-claw in self defense and to communicate with its fellow shrimp. Not quite cool enough for you? Okay, how about this: if a Pistol Shrimp’s gun-claw is torn off, not only will it grow a new limb to replace the missing one, its other claw — which is typically smaller, while its shooting arm is half the size of its body — will grow to become its new shooting hand. It can grow back missing parts and it’s ambidextrous. If you don’t seriously love this shrimp right now, I can only assume it’s because you’re jealous.

BBC Weird Nature

Some varieties of Pistol Shrimp have also learned to live cooperatively with another species, which is more than I can even say for me and my dog. Pistol Shrimp build their own burrows, but they’ve been known to share their space with goby fish, which have superior eyesight and act like watchdogs for the shrimp. The fish alerts the shrimp to danger, and then they both retreat into the burrow together. Presumably they also snuggle. I’m guessing the fish is the little spoon.

BBC Invisible Worlds


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