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The Amazing Pistol Shrimp: The Fastest Shooter of the Seas

Updated on September 12, 2015

The Pistol Shrimp can create bubbles by click its claws together that travel at 100 km/h, which can be hotter than the surface of the sun when they collapse. It also uses the claw's snapping sound to communicate. Far from an overstatement, the pistol shrimp packs a deadly blow.

Let's enter the weird and wonderful underwater world of the pistol shrimp, which with a quick snap of its claw, it turns sound into a weapon, as it fires a "bubble bullet" that travels as fast as a car, to ward off predators and stun or even kill prey. By snapping its claws, it can also make communication sounds among other shrimps.

Scientifically named Alpheidae, the pistol shrimp is characterized for having asymmetrical claws. The larger of the two is typically capable of producing an incredibly loud snapping sound. That is why this mollusk is also known as snapping shrimp or alpheid shrimp.

The pistol shrimp is not very big, as a matter of fact, it is pretty tiny. However, its size should not be underestimated. At 1-2 inches (3-5 cm) long, it has one of the most awesome weapons in all of the animal kingdom. This crack shot has its snapper function just like a handgun, and other shrimps, crabs and small fish at close proximity are the targets. When prey is in range, the claw snaps shut so fast, it fires a bubble bullet up to 60 miles (100 km) an hour. The bubble bursts, stunning or killing the prey. It all happens in a fraction of a second... it is the fastest gunner in the sea!

But, how does it do that?

When its prey is nearby, from distance, it deals a knock-out blow, by using its claw as a sonic weapon. First, it cocks its claw like a pistol, then fires. The effect is literally stunning. As the claw snaps, it fires a blast of bubbles. Incredibly, as the bubbles collapse, they, for a split second, reach the temperature of the sun. This implosion causes a shockwave that actually bombards its prey, which, if it's lucky enough, will die instantly. Then the pistol shrimp drags the stunned or dead prey into its burrow.

The pistol shrimp has two claws: a small pincer and an enormous snapper. The snapper, which can grow up to half the length of the shrimp's body, does not have two symmetrical halves. Instead, half of it, the propus, is immobile and has a little socket. The other half is called a dactyl, and is the mobile part. It has a plunger that fits into the propus socket. The shrimp opens the dactyl by co-contracting a muscle. This builds tension until another closing muscle contracts, causing it to snap closed, ejecting a powerful jet of water traveling at unbelievable speed.

In fact, the snapper is shut so fast, that is effectively fast enough to insanely rip the water apart. When it does that, it creates a low pressure area behind the stream of water. But there is so much negative pressure inside that bubble that the water crushes it back down. So, the actual power comes when the water rushes back in to fill the gap, causing an implosion and releasing a serious amount of energy and a serious amount of heat. As the bubble implodes, it also produces a flash of light. Which indicates that the temperature reached inside of the collapsing bubble must be at least 10,000 Kelvin (18,000 °F / 9,700 °C). This is considerably hotter than the surface of the sun. Additionally, the snapping sound itself reaches 218 decibels, where the human eardrum ruptures at a mere 150. Ouch!

Its family is diverse. There are about 600 species within 38 or more genera. For the most part, they are located in tropical and temperate water along sea coasts and shallow oceans. Most pistol shrimp dig burrows and are common inhabitants of coral and oyster reefs, as well as in submerged seagrass meadows.

These genera have a symbiotic relationship with goby fish. The pistol shrimp is great at digging and building burrows. However, it has very poor eyesight. So, it relies on the goby fish to warn it from danger. This is done by keeping in constant physical contact with the goby using its antennae. The goby fish alerts it by flicking the shrimp antennas with its tail, the shrimp interprets this as danger and rushes into its burrow for shelter. In return, the goby fish gets to use the burrow for protection as well. This way, the pistol shrimp gets a watcher, and goby gets a safe place to live and lay eggs.

Far from being quiet, the ocean is filled with a cacophony of animal noise. But who would have thought that most of the din is made by a surprisingly insignificant creature? When in colonies, the snapping shrimp can even interfere with sonar and underwater communication. These shrimps are a major source of noise in the ocean, and compete with much larger animals, such as the beluga whale and sperm whale for the title of loudest animals in the sea.

The pistol shrimp is most definitely an amazing creature!


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