Meet Grabthar

This is Grabthar, my pet Peacock mantis shrimp. Don’t let the name fool you. Mantis shrimp are not actually shrimp but are close crustacean relatives called stomatopods. Grabthar is basically the coolest pet on the planet.

I know that’s quite the definitive statement, and you may initially beg to differ, but I’d wager that I can change your mind.

Peacock mantis shrimp are what are known as “smashers” in the stomatopod world, and when I say smashers, I mean smashers! Name one other creature whose front appendages can have the same force as a .22 caliber bullet, and at maximum, will only grow to the length of your standard school ruler. Grabthar uses these fantastic weapons to stun mobile prey and smash open shells through cavitation to get at the yummy goodness inside. To see such prowess in action, I highly recommend watching this fantastic presentation by biologist Sheila Patek.

You may be thinking, yeah, that’s pretty cool, but what else ya got? I’d respond that you should look deep into Grabthar’s eyes, and staring back at you will be eyes that are considered the most complex in the animal kingdom. His compound eyes are mounted on the ends of mobile stalks and move independently of one another. He sees in 12 different primary colors (human eyes can only perceive 3), and can detect ultraviolet, infrared, and circularly polarized light, meaning he could probably watch 3-D movies without the 3-D glasses. Grabthar has some seriously amazing eyes.

On top of his “smashers”, and the crazy cool eyes, mantis shrimp are also endowed with a multitude of other appendages (17 pairs in all). Some of my other favorites are Grabthar’s 6 grasping “arms” which he uses to delicately tear off the soft corals anchored to the live rock in his tank and unceremoniously stuff them in some gaping hole he doesn’t like.

So why haven’t you heard about Grabthar and his brethren before? Surely something this unbelievably amazing should be front and center in our consciousness, right? I would wager that Grabthar and his cohorts are just playing hard to get. Stomatopods are known as cryptofauna, which means they are very skilled at hiding. You will find their secret lairs hidden among coral reefs all around the world, a fact which does not bode well for the future of Grabthar’s fellow stomatopods or any other reef dwelling creature for that matter.

Last week, the World Resources Institute (WRI) launched its “Reefs at Risk Revisited” report. This report underscores yet again that we have barely scratched the surface of what we know about coral reefs. These “rainforests of the sea” support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people and are home to the majority of the diversity in the world’s oceans. Despite this, more than 60% of the world’s coral reefs are under immediate and direct threat from human activities. If we continue on our present course of inaction this number is projected to increase to 90% by 2030 and to 100% by 2050. Yet, there’s still hope. With sufficient effort and political will, most direct impacts to coral reefs can be alleviated. MCBI works to protect corals and coral ecosystems through collaboration with other NGO’s, to justify to Congress the need to fund federal programs that support coral reef conservation like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation program. This funding is in jeopardy due to Congress’ attempt to reduce federal funding levels, but MCBI strongly believes that this program is one worth protecting.

There are around 400 species of stomatopod that we know of, ranging from plain brown to the multi-colored fluorescent beauty of Grabthar. Aquarists know them as pests who hide out in live rock and prey upon the unsuspecting fauna of their reef tanks. Divers know them as something to avoid lest you want your finger bone smashed to pieces as you poke amongst the corals (known as “thumb-splitters”). My daughter knows them as the fascinating creature that swims around our reef tank, manipulating his environment in an amazingly destructive, yet delicate way. What will you know them as?

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