Mantis Shrimp Attack with the Force of a 0.22 Caliber Bullet

Hearing about the projects and research being done by the other HH fellows was, in one word, exciting! And it was exciting for two reasons. The scientific theory behind each project–ranging from studying the genetic variation that drives speech-pattern development in song birds to the role of signaling pathways in the development of an autoimmune disease that causes dry eye–is, alone, enthralling and engaging on its own. However, far more striking was seeing the variation in approaches that many of the projects take. While I listened, absorbed, and attempted to comprehend the hard work that each of my colleagues is doing, I became distinctly aware of the variety of avenues the one can take through research (there is more than just endless pipetting out there!…not that I dislike pipetting, as I’ve already discussed). In this way, I guess, seeing their work as a reaffirmation of the beauty of science. The presentations I saw were a reminder that, regardless of the implications of the projects or their applications, science is more than worth doing. It’s just too cool to pass on.

Here’s an example of why.

Dani’s project, in particular, stands out to me. Dani is currently studying how cells differentiate in the appendages of mantis shrimp during the developmental phases of their growth. To begin her presentation, she explained to us that there are two basic types of mantis shrimp: bashers and spearers. Bashers have bulky claws that they use to smash open shelled prey with astonishing force (the acceleration is comparable to that of a 0.22 caliber bullet leaving a gun). Spearers instead use their smaller, barbed claws to spear passing soft-bodied prey like fish with an acceleration that, while less impressive than that of smashers, is still formidable. She further explained that while the manner in which they use their claws is different, both groups share a common physiology, having their claws on arms that are divided into four segments. Her research, however, focuses on spearers. This is because the specific development of each arm segment impacts the effectiveness of their appendage more-so than for bashers.

So how, roughly, is she studying the pattern of tissue differentiation during the growth and development of these appendages?

To begin her project, Dani took a trip with her mentor up to the Smithsonian’s Animal Archive in Virginia. While there, Dani and her mentor took approximately one thousand photos of 60 specimens (I take my hat off to you, Dani). Once she returned to her lab, she used computer programs to map key physiological points on the clawed appendages of the shrimp, points that she will cross reference between the sixty specimens to determine which segments of the appendage develop from the same root tissue and which do not. Her reasoning, as I understood it, was that if two or more segments show a consistent size ratio across a significant number of specimens, then it can be inferred that those segments of the shrimp’s arm developed from the same root tissue, or were at least regulated during their development by the same mechanisms.

Right off the bat, when Dani said that she is working with Mantis Shrimp, I knew I would especially enjoy her chalk talk. Being an avid scuba diver (and having spent the majority of my youth wanting to be a marine biologist) I am a sucker for scientific looks at ocean-dwelling creatures. After a small googling spree incited by Dani’s presentation, I have found myself especially fascinated by mantis shrimp. Not only are they beautiful, but they also have incredible physiologies (their eyes are also a marvel of nature). As such, I am excited to hear about Dani’s progress as these last few weeks of our program pass.

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