Pistol Shrimp: The Fastest Gun in the Sea

By: Katie Carman  | 

pistol shrimp
The Bullseye Pistol Shrimp (Alpheus soror) is bright yellow/orange with purple claws and a characteristic blue bullseye dot on each side of its body. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

Being called a shrimp doesn't exactly make you known for having sizable strength or an intimidating presence. But there's one little weird wonder of the sea — the pistol shrimp — that crushes the stereotype in a dramatic way. It's so powerful it not only shoots and annihilates its prey; it has thrown the U.S. Navy off track, landed a superhero role on Netflix and even helped researchers make strides in fighting climate change. Pistol shrimp, also known as snapping shrimp, earn their sea cred by creating something that's seemingly childlike and innocuous: bubbles. But these definitely aren't your ordinary bubbles — they make a sound louder than a gun and generate massive amounts of heat.

Pistol shrimp "shoot" these deadly bubbles to kill prey, jackhammer into rock to create burrows or protect said burrows from other, jealous shrimp. They have no need for a fancy holster or to stock up on ammo — their gun is built right into their one, oversized snapper claw that can grow to be half the size of their tiny body.

The monstrous sound 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. Upon closing the claw with impressive force, a plunger-like piece shoots the water out at speeds as fast as a car traveling down the highway. This creates a powerful bubble that not only kills what's in its path but creates a ridiculously loud sound when it pops. Here are six fun facts about the pistol shrimp:

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1. Their Bubble Bullets Are Louder Than a Gun and Hotter than Lava

These sharp-shooting crustaceans are far from quiet — their bubbles have measured in at 218 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 fraction of a second.

When the bubble pops, it generates heat that reaches 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit (4,427 degrees Celsius), four times hotter than lava. The heat dissipates at rapid speed so there are no lasting effects (except to the unfortunate small creature that felt its burn).

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2. They (Almost) Interfered with WWII

The powerful pistol shrimp threw an unlikely wrench into the U.S. Navy's defense plan during World War II. The snap-crackle-pop sound began interfering with sonar used to detect enemy ships, causing the sailors 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 sonar operators to recognize them as sea denizens rather than enemies.

Yet while at times troublesome to us humans, the sound created by pistol shrimp isn't always problematic. It can reflect the health of the coral reef since lots of hunting means lots of life and a balanced ecosystem. The noise can also help other sea creatures navigate the area.

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3. Their Snapping Mechanism Helps Researchers Create a Source of Clean Energy

Pistol shrimp are inspiring researchers in England as they work to replicate the process that heats up the sun, fusion power, to create an abundance of clean, safe energy — giving a big boost to the fight against climate change. Fusion power needs a high-velocity projectile to create a shockwave and collapse a plasma-filled cavity, and the pistol shrimp are the only creatures on Earth who naturally have such powers.

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4. They Can Regrow a Lost Appendage AND Switch Weapon Hands

The monstrous snapper claw indeed does all the dirty work, but the smaller claw has some superpowers of its own. If attacked, pistol shrimp will let go of their huge snapper for self-preservation. Luckily, they'll not only grow a new one; their original small pincer will begin to transform itself into a large snapper claw. This gives them a head start in getting back on the path to shooting bubbles.

pistol shrimp
Researchers named a newly discovered species of pistol shrimp after their favorite British rock band — Pink Floyd. The Synalpheus pinkfloydi boasts a bright pink snapping claw and makes its home (and colorful fashion statement) in the Pacific waters off the coast of Panama.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

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5. Despite Their Reputation for Danger, They Can Be Quite Cooperative

Many species of pistol shrimp live in clusters, likely as a form of protection. And a few species work together with other types of animals. Pistol shrimp are known to give gobies, a type of small fish, a place to live in exchange for help watching out for danger.

Pistol shrimp most often live in coral reefs and beds of sea grass. Duck your head under water in temperate and tropical regions, and you'll likely hear from one of the more than 600 species that exist around the globe.

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6. Netflix Gave Them a Starring Role as a Superhero

In the film "Project Power," created by Netflix, the character played by Jamie Foxx is granted a few minutes of pistol shrimp power to turn raindrops into high-speed jets that decimate anything in their path. Who knew such a little critter could make such a big impact on the big screen?

There's no doubt these gun toting invertebrates are a standout under the sea. Whether they're shooting the enemy or playing nice with their allies, they're one of nature's loudest — and most fascinating — critters. Next time you're in tropical waters, dip down and enjoy the sounds of the curious, crackling chorus.

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