Shrimp communications shed light on new optical material

Researchers have determined exactly how mantis shrimp are able to control light to communicate(Credit: prilfish/CC2.0)

The study of an unusual communication method used by mantis shrimp has provided an unexpected insight that could lead to a new take on optical devices used in many consumer products, from sunglasses to cameras. The study, which was led by researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, successfully revealed the mechanism by which the little crustaceans are able to manipulate the polarization of light.

Carefully studying nature can provide great ideas for potential future innovations. In the past, we've seen everything from boxfish shells being used as inspiration for better body armor, to the coiling motion of boa constrictors inspiring soft robotic grippers for use on remotely-operated aquatic robotic vehicles. Now, it seems that shrimp might provide the inspiration for a new way to create optical devices known as a polarizers, which are used in cameras and other devices.

The University of Bristol team set about studying the mysterious light-based communications of the mantis shrimp – a species that's evolved bright reflectors that can control the polarization of light. It's certainly an unusual way for animals to communicate, but it serves the shrimp well, allowing them to avoid the unwanted attention of predators.

The researchers watched the shrimp communicating, carefully studying their anatomy, while taking detailed measurements of the light. They combined that information with theoretical modeling to determine exactly how the little crustaceans are able to control light in such a way.

The findings revealed that the shrimp manipulate light across the structure of their anatomy rather than through depth, which is how polarizers typically work. The creatures' tiny, microscopically thin optical structures are able to produce large, bright and highly colorful polarized signals, despite their diminutive nature.

According to the researchers, the new understanding could one day lead to big developments in numerous consumer products that use polarizers, from cameras and DVD players to sunglasses.

"When it comes to developing a new way to make polarizers, nature has come up with optical solutions we haven't yet thought of," said team member Dr. Nicholas Roberts. "Industries working on optical technologies will be interested in this new solution mantis shrimp have found to create a polarizer as new ways for humans to use and control light are developed."

The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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