Often we use the words “shrimp” or “shrimpy” to describe something that is small or weak.

But just because an animal is small doesn’t mean it is weak.

An example is the mantis shrimp. They typically grow to only about 4 inches long, although some are as long as 15 inches. Despite their small size, mantis shrimp pack a powerful punch. They’re like the karate kid of shrimp.

Mantis shrimp, also called stomatopods, are different from the shrimp you may like to eat fried or with noodles. The mantis shrimp has a club-like claw that is very strong. For this reason they are called “smashers.” Millions of years ago there were other shrimp that had pointy claws. They were called “spearers” and used the claw to spear softer prey.

To crack its prey’s shells, the mantis shrimp flicks out its club very quickly and with a lot of force — a powerful shrimpy punch. The punch has been measure at 51 miles per hour. Some highways have 55 mph speed limits for cars. The speed of the punch is faster than a .22 caliber bullet. One video shows the shrimp breaking a glass with its punch.

Scientists wondered why such a hard punch doesn’t break the mantis shrimp’s club. The club is made of chitin, which is the same thing that makes up the shells of some insects, shrimp, lobsters and crabs. But the inside of the club is built to absorb some of that hard hitting while the outside is wrapped with fibers to help protect the club during those punches. The scientists compared it to a boxer who wraps their hands with tape before putting on boxing gloves.

If scientists can understand how the shrimp’s club is built and make a similar design, they could come up with a very tough material that has incredible strength, is resistant to punches or hits and would last a long time.

This is one more example of how much humans can learn from the natural world. We humans may think we’re smart, but nature has already invented some pretty cool stuff if we just take the time to look closely.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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