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The Real Power of the Pistol Shrimp

These tiny shrimp pack a BIG punch

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© Christian Gloor

Faster than a speeding bullet, it’s … the pistol shrimp!

At first glance, the pistol shrimp might seem more Mr. Krabs than Butch Cassidy, but this small invertebrate has a power-packed punch. Sometimes overshadowed by the very powerful, very colorful mantis shrimp, it’s time that the sassy snapping shrimp gets the recognition it deserves.

Pistol shrimp, also known as snapping shrimp, are a crustacean in the family Alpheidae. Their two front claws are different sizes, with one being notably larger than the other. There are hundreds of species found all over the world, but most species are found in reefs and seagrass beds in temperate and tropical regions. They’re not very big, only reaching a few inches in size, but their large claws can grow to half its body length.

This large claw holds the pistol shrimp’s superpower. When a pistol shrimp senses prey is nearby, it will open the top part of its big claw, allowing some water to enter a small chamber in the crook of the claw. Then, when it clamps down, the pressure from a small plunger on the top claw forces the water out of the chamber. This happens so fast that it creates bubbles. And not just any bubbles: these bubbles can speed out at 60 miles per hour, fast enough to stun or kill the prey! When the bubbles pop, it makes a “snap” sound that gives these shrimp their name.

The bubbles are loud. Like, really loud. The snap of one recently-discovered species of pistol shrimp called Synalpheus pinkfloydi (named after something else that is also loud and very cool: Pink Floyd) can reach 210 decibels. That is louder than an actual gunshot, which is around 140 – 175 decibels. You can hear them for yourself by sticking your head below the water on a reef and listening for the “snap snap snap.”

The pistol shrimp’s mighty snap comes in handy for more than just lunch. Its powerful claw can deter predators or other competitors looking to take over the shrimp’s burrow. It also makes males more attractive to the ladies—larger claws suggest they are better mates.

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© Steve Childs / Flickr

However, just because pistol shrimp have a big weapon doesn’t mean they can’t play nice. Some species have symbiotic relationships with other organisms, meaning they work together so one or both species benefit. Some species will share a home with gobies, a type of small fish. The goby keeps an eye out for predators while the shrimp digs their burrow, and once the burrow is finished, the goby looks for threats while they look for food. If the goby gives the signal that danger is nearby, they both scurry back to their protective home.

Mega fighting power and good teamwork skills—what else would you want for a superhero? Actually, Netflix’s new superhero movie Project Power agrees: Jamie Foxx’s character possesses the power of the pistol shrimp after taking a pill that gives animal-inspired superpowers.

Making it to pop culture mainstream? Now that is the recognition this gun-slinging crustacean deserves!

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