Mantis Shrimp Use “Secret Light Language”

Written by on November 27, 2015 in Marine Life
Mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimp. Photo credit: PacificKlaus via photopin cc.

By now, you probably all know that we love mantis shrimp; they’re absolutely wild. They’re only six inches long, but are stronger than airplanes.

These little crustaceans have the the fastest punch in the animal kingdom that inspired the design of new body armor and football helmets. They also have the most complex visual system that we know of. They have 12 color-receptive cones (compared to the three that humans have), they can see UV, infrared, and polarized light, and they can move each eye individually.

Now, new research reveals they are even cooler than we thought. Researchers from the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland discovered a new form of “secret light communication” used by mantis shrimp.

The team found that tiger mantis shrimp (Gonodactylaceus falcatus) can reflect and detect circular polarizing light, which they use “as a means to covertly advertise their presence to aggressive competitors”.

“We’ve determined that a mantis shrimp displays circular polarised patterns on its body, particularly on its legs, head and heavily armoured tail,” Professor Justin Marshall explained in a news release. “These are the regions most visible when it curls up during conflict.”

To examine how these mantis shrimp use this ability, researchers put a one into a tank with two burrows to hide in — one burrow reflected unpolarized light and the other reflected circular polarized light. The mantis shrimp chose the unpolarized burrow 68% of the time.

“If you essentially label holes with circular polarising light, by shining circular polarising light out of them, shrimps won’t go near it,” said Professor Marshall. “They know – or they think they know – there’s another shrimp there.”

In addition to proving that the mantis shrimp is even more fascinating than we thought, these findings also have medical implications. According to Professor Marshall, they may help doctors to better detect cancer because cancerous cells do not reflect circular polarized light in the same way as healthy cells. Since humans can’t naturally detect circular polarizing light, cameras equipped with special sensors may detect cancer cells “long before the human eye” would be able to.

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Copyright © 2015 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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  1. Ashleigh Munton says:

    Finding new ways to detect cancer from an amazing ocean dwelling crustacean. Things like this never cease to amaze me. I find it fascinating that learning something so basic about a crustacea’s way of communication, could save thousands of lives with no known side effects.