Vicious Sea Creature Sees in Dazzling Color

BY Jenny Marder  April 12, 2013 at 3:29 PM EDT

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.

QUICK BITES

  • Judy Woodruff interviewed Washington Post’s David Brown yesterday on how government watchdog Public Citizen blasted the NIH for failing to disclose risks of oxygen treatment to parents of premature infants.
  • American researchers are working to replicate an Eastern European folk remedy in the battle against bedbugs, according to this New York Times report. Housewives spread bean leaves on the floor of an infested room, left them there overnight, then came in in the morning to find bugs trapped on the leaves, at which point leaves and bugs were collected and burned.

  • The secret to well-being and long life … for orangutans.

  • The Lancet just posted a correction to an obituary published in 1858. Original post from Poynter.

  • Could the magic mushroom’s psychedelic properties help treat people with severe depression? From the Guardian.

  • Students of Fraser High School in Michigan, a PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs site, produced a video about the benefits and drawbacks of chewing gum.

  • 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

Rebecca Jacobson, Tom Kennedy and David Pelcyger contributed to this report.