Once a month, South East Queenslanders with an interest in marine science are given the opportunity to spend the evening learning about topics such as change in marine environments, nudibranchs or manta rays at the Coral to Coast lecture series. Scientists present a lecture on their research topic and guests are invited to mingle afterwards over pizza, with the opportunity to ask the speaker questions one-on-one.
One Tuesday night Dr Miriam Henze was the speaker at SeaLife Mooloolaba. Dr Henze is based at the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland where she is currently researching vision in arthropods (creatures like crabs, spiders and insects). This is interesting because these creatures have sophisticated vision despite having small brains. She is currently studying how they make use of the complex visual information they receive without much brain power to process it with.
Mantis shrimp are surprisingly interesting creatures. Their beautiful colours can change to enable them to camouflage themselves. Some can even make themselves translucent. They also have appendages known as either smashers (like clubs for punching prey so hard that is smashes crustacean shells) or spearers (which act like swords when the shrimp leaps out to stab passing fish). These strike out with the acceleration of a fired bullet, causing the water around them to boil and creating a bubble which creates a second impact as it bursts (this is known as cavitation). It is these forces which prevent aquariums from keeping mantis shrimp, because they’ve been known to smash right through aquarium glass!
While Dr Henze confides that the mantis shrimp has become her favourite animal, there are also important applications for her research. For instance, devastating coral bleaching has occurred over much of the Great Barrier Reef with recent record temperatures in Queensland. This has had flow-on effects for many ecosystem inhabitants. Mantis shrimp populations do not seem to have been affected yet, however. Studying their resilience could help scientists develop solutions for other reef inhabitants. Research could also lead to treatments for human ailments, such as the use of cavitation in destroying kidney stones.