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February 27, 2024 7 mins

Pistol shrimp (aka snapping shrimp) can 'shoot' bubbles that go off louder than a gun and will stun prey or dig into rock. Learn more (including how they're inspiring nuclear fission research) in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://animals.howstuffworks.com/marine-life/pistol-shrimp.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
Lauren boglebaumb here A. Being called a shrimp doesn't exactly
make you known for having sizeable strength or an intimidating presence,
but there are a few weird wonders of the sea
that crush that stereotype of in dramatic ways. We've talked

(00:24):
on the show before about the mantis shrimp, but today
we're tackling the pistol shrimp. It's so powerful that it
not only shoots and annihilates its prey, it's thrown the
US Navy off track and even helped researchers make strides
and finding clean sources of energy. A pistol shrimp, also
known as stabbing shrimp, earn their sea cred by creating

(00:46):
something that's seemingly innocuous bubbles. But these definitely aren't your
ordinary bubbles. When they collapse, they make a sound louder
than a gun and generate massive amounts of heat. A
pistol shrimp shoot these deadly bubbles to kill prey a
jackhammer and to rock to create burrows, or to protect

(01:07):
said burrows from other shrimp. They have no need for
a fancy holster or to stock up on AMMO. Their
weapon is built right into their one oversized snapper claw,
which can grow to be half the size of their
tiny body. There are actually hundreds of species of these
shrimp within the larger family of snapping shrimp, which live

(01:27):
all over the world, mostly in tropical to temperate saltwater environments,
where they can burrow into rocks or reefs or hide
among sea grass. They tend to be just an inch
or too long, about three to five centimeters, and have
one claw much larger than the other, though it can
be either claw left or right. The monstrous sound that

(01:47):
they make isn't actually caused by the parts of the
claw impacting each other. As the shrimp open their large
snapper claw, water fills the small crook inside. Upon closing
the claw with impressive force, a plunger like piece shoots
the water out. It speeds as fast as a car
traveling down the highway, as some sixty miles or one

(02:08):
hundred kilometers an hour. It's so fast that it creates
an area of pressure so low that a void or
bubble of water vapor forms within the liquid water. That
bubble quickly collapses, creating a flash of light and of heat,
reaching some eight thousand degrees of fahrenheit that's about four thousand,
five hundred degrees celsius, and creating shockwaves that not only

(02:32):
stun or kill what's in their path, but make a
ridiculously loud sound. Those collapsing bubbles have measured in at
two hundred and eighteen decibels, which is louder than a
speeding bullet to us humans. The sound isn't actually that loud,
but that's due to the blast only lasting a tiny

(02:53):
fraction of a second and being underwater. However, divers and
snorkelers certainly can hear it. If you've I've had your
head underwater and heard what sounds a little like the
snap crackle pop of raised crispies. That's probably been a
local population of pistol shrimp. It is heavy weaponry, but

(03:13):
if attacked, pistol shrimp are willing to shed that claw
in order to live and snap another day and snap again.
They will. Alike all fellow decapods such as lobsters and crabs,
pistol shrimp are capable of regrowing lost or damaged limbs
during their next molt cycle, which is when they shed
their shell and grow a new, bigger one. While the

(03:33):
lost claw grows back, their smaller claw will begin to
transform itself into the large snapper claw of the pair.
The new one will be a regular, non snapping claw,
and this gives them a head start in getting back
on the path to shooting bubbles. That noise that they
make through an unlikely wrench into the US Navy's defense

(03:54):
plan during World War Two, the snapping sound began interfering
with sonar used to detach enemy ships, causing the Navy
to bring in researchers from the University of California Division
of War Research. Luckily, they sorted out the source and
recorded the shrimp's sounds to train so inar operators to
recognize them as sea denizens rather than enemies. While that

(04:16):
was admittedly troublesome, the sound created by pistol shrimp usually
reflects the good health of a coral reef because lots
of them hunting means lots of life and a balanced ecosystem.
The noise can also help other sea creatures navigate the sea.
Many species of pistol shrimp living clusters likely is a
form of protection, and a few species work together with

(04:38):
other types of animals. A pistol shrimp are known to
give gobies, a type of small fish, a place to
live in exchange for help watching out for danger. And
pistol shrimp are also helping researchers who are working towards
creating fusion reactors. Okay, A fusion is the process that
powers our Sun and other stars aware in small or

(05:00):
atoms smashed together to create larger atoms plus energy. A
fusion has the potential to provide clean, safe energy, enough
of it that we humans could seriously cut our dependence
on polluted fossil fuels and sometimes hazardous nuclear power, and
bring cheap electricity to all corners of the Earth. The
potential is awesome, but we haven't figured out quite how

(05:22):
to make it work efficiently. But we're talking about shrimp.
A team out of England has taken inspiration from pistol shrimp.
They're working with a type of fusion reaction called inertial
confinement fusion. This type uses powerful shock waves to compress
and heat a bit of fuel so much and so
quickly that fusion occurs before the fuel can blow apart.

(05:45):
So the researchers got the idea that the type of
bubble creation and collapse that happens when a pistol shrimp
shoots could represent a small scale version of a way
to create that heat and pressure necessary to kickstart fusion
in a bit of fuel. Basically, I'm not an expert
and physics is complicated, so yes, these gun coding invertebrates

(06:11):
are a standout under the sea and everywhere. Whether they're
shooting the enemy or playing nice with their allies, they're
one of nature's loudest and most fascinating critters. The next
time you're in tropical waters, dip down and enjoy the
sounds of the curious crackling chorus. Today's episode is based

(06:33):
on the article pistol shrimp the fastest gun in the
Sea on HowStuffWorks dot com, written by Katiecarmen. The brain
Stuff is production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how stuffworks
dot Com and is produced by Tyler Klang. Four more
podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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