Vicious Sea Creature Sees in Dazzling Color
A mantis shrimp peers from its burrow in the Bismarck Sea in Papua New Guinea. Photo by David Doubilet/ National Geographic/ Getty Images.
We’re a little late to the party here, but if you haven’t yet read this comic by the Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman on the unlikely shrimp that sees an unimaginable array of colors, I implore you: Read. Immediately. As Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich writes, “no one, and I mean no one, has loved this shrimp better than Matthew Inman.”
And lo, it is glorious, this love comic to a vicious shrimp. It describes how we see colors, via the light-sensitive rods and cones in our eyes. How we see more colors than dogs and how butterflies see more colors than us, “color our brains aren’t even capable of processing.” And how the mantis shrimp possesses an unfathomable number of color-receptive cones: sixteen. (For perspective, we have three.)
“Where we see a rainbow,” Inman says, “the mantis shrimp sees a thermonuclear bomb of light and beauty.”
What’s so great about this comic is that in addition to being visual and fun, it’s an example of powerful science writing. In just a few words, it tells us so much about the shrimp: the speed and force with it strikes and then dismembers its prey, why it is a terrible bedfellow to other sea creatures, and why researchers think its cell structures could inform advanced body armor for combat troops.
It puts its mantis facts vividly into a perspective to which we can relate. For example, if humans could accelerate their arms at a tenth of the speed at which the mantis strikes its prey, “we’d be able to throw a baseball into orbit.”
And then it takes a sudden, farcical, but quite lovely turn to the dark side. If you read anything this weekend, please read this.
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- Don’t forget to submit to our GZA-inspired science rap contest! Winners earn a signed PBS NewsHour mug and a shoutout from the rap legend himself.
NOT SAFE FOR LUNCH
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Rebecca Jacobson, Tom Kennedy and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.