The mantis shrimp uses muscles to cock back two hammer-like appendages under its face, storing energy in a saddle-like divot in the limbs. When it releases the latch, the hammers accelerate so quickly, and strike your shell with such brutality, that they produce cavitation bubbles in the water, which collapse and release a secondary shockwave that knocks you out cold.
What Miserez and his colleagues found was equal parts strange and evolutionarily brilliant. The saddle is made up of distinct top and bottom layers: On top is a bioceramic, not unlike what you’d find in a coffee mug, while on the bottom is a stretchy material called a biopolymer.
When the mantis shrimp loads energy into that saddle, the structure sort of folds in on itself, compressing the top layer of ceramic and exploiting its material properties. As it does so, the bottom layer of biopolymer stretches, exploiting that material’s particular asset. “Polymers are strong in tension, like silk for instance, but not in compression,” says Miserez. So each material is uniquely suited, given its position on the saddle, to provide strength so the hammer doesn’t snap.
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