One of nature’s most notorious psychopaths may be giving cancer patients new hope. The mantis shrimp is famous for having a punch like a .22 bullet and a perpetual bad attitude, but it also has the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom, which are excellent at detecting polarized light. With this in mind, researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) are developing new cameras based on the mantis shrimp’s eyes that can detect a variety of cancer tissues.

Polarized light is a non-invasive way of detecting cancers because cancerous tissue reflects light differently from normal tissue. The problem is, the human eye can’t see polarized light and, though cameras that detect polarized light are already being used for detecting cancer, they still leave a lot to be desired. However, the mantis shrimp may help give the technology a major boost because its eyes are better at handling polarized light than anything man made.

The mantis shrimp already boasts a formidable armory of traits. It has an extremely tough mantle that has inspired a new generation of body armor, deadly claws with a supersonic punch, and a reputation for responding to most situations by belting someone or something. However, its eyes are in a league by themselves.

The mantis shrimp’s eye consists of two flattened hemispheres split into three regions, with the central band crowded with specialized receptors. This means that each eye possesses trinocular vision and depth perception. In addition, the mantis shrimp has 16 different photoreceptor pigments with 12 reserved for color sensitivity and the others for color filtering.

What this means is that the mantis shrimp has shellfish super vision. Where humans can see only three colors, the mantis shrimp can effectively see nine more colors than we can. Also, it can see both polarized light and multispectral images because each of the 10 thousand individual photocells, called ommatidia, found in eye eye has a pigment cell for color vision and an array of microvilli that perform as extremely efficient polarization filters.

"Humans can’t see [cancerous tissue surrounded by healthy tissue], but a mantis shrimp could walk up to it and hit it," says Professor Justin Marshall, from the Queensland Brain Institute at UQ. "We see color with hues and shades, and objects that contrast – a red apple in a green tree for example – but our research is revealing a number of animals that use polarized light to detect and discriminate between objects. The camera that we've developed in close collaboration with US and UK scientists shoots video and could provide immediate feedback on detecting cancer and monitoring the activity of exposed nerve cells. It converts the invisible messages into colors that our visual system is comfortable with."

Marshall says that when perfected, the technology could even be adapted to smartphones for self-diagnosis, allowing patients to monitor their own condition, which would free up scarce medical resources. In addition, the ability of the mantis shrimp camera to see nerve cell activity could make it a new tool for neuroscience.

The UQ research was published in IEEE.