QBI researcher honoured for vision discoveries in mantis shrimp

23 January 2020


A Queensland Brain Institute researcher has been recognized with an international prize for pioneering discoveries into the visual systems of mantis shrimps.

University of Queensland’s Professor Justin Marshall, alongside long-term colleague Professor Tom Cronin from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, shared the honour of being awarded the Rank Prize for Optoelectronics.

Their research found the marine crustaceans possess colour vision with four times the capacity of human RGB-based colour sensitivity and possess a form of vision unique among animals – circular polarisation.

Professor Justin Marshall.

While mantis shrimp appear to use these visual adaptations for choosing a mate, the physical basis of their vision has applications that may help in the early detection of cancer or satellite design.

“We’ve received a prize for describing weirdness beyond our wildest dreams,” Professor Marshall said.

“With 12 colour channels, mantis shrimps have more detectors for the rainbow of colours than any other animal we know of, and many more than people who only have a meagre three—red, green and blue.

“This large number of colour channels enables mantis shrimps to identify colours more speedily than us and to see the ultraviolet (UV) part of the spectrum, to which we are totally blind.”

Shrimp vision may lead to cancer detection

Professor Marshall said mantis shrimp could also see circular polarisation, a very bizarre and esoteric form of light usually confined to physics books and optoelectronic engineering.

“It has been difficult for human technology to separate the different colours of circular polarised light, while the mantis shrimp has been doing it for millennia,” he said.

“Cancer can be detected with polarised light systems because cells around the cancer reflect polarised light differently.

“We hope that through optical engineering solutions inspired from these remarkable animals, we can improve that vital early detection.”

Vision 'superpowers' a boost to technology?

Professors Marshall and Cronin have also shared their mantis shrimp discoveries with collaborators to improve technologies in satellite cameras and under water navigation.

For the shrimps, the way they perceive colour and light is about survival.

“These ‘superpowers’ are used for communication - basically sex and violence,” Professor Marshall said.

“Whether it is arguing over territory or attracting a mate—males communicate using markings on their tail that reflect and alter polarised light, and females can detect it using a unique receptor which manipulates the incoming light rays.”

Despite the distance that separates them, Professors Marshall and Cronin have been working together for more than 30 years.

“Our first research together was featured on the front cover of the journal Nature in 1989, and we decided to keep a good thing going, and have continued to publish our work jointly,” Professor Marshall said.