Bang Bang You’re Dead

Here’s a superpower that you might not expect would be found in nature: Power blasts.

They’re a must-have for any superhero team: Bishop, Havok, etc. The powers themselves stem from some vague “cosmic energy” source invented by lazy science fiction writers. But at least two animals on Earth have the ability to kill using scientifically-qualified sonic blasts.

One is the sperm whale, so named because early whalers believed that the white, viscous liquid that filled the organ in its square-shaped head was sperm. Actually, it’s wax, which helps the deep-diving animal control its buoyancy: when heated by blood, it floats, and when cooled, it sinks, bringing the whale down to the depths where the giant squid swim. But scientists now believe that the spermaceti organ, as it’s called, is more than a flotation device.

All toothed whales and dolphins focus the sonic pulses they use for echolocation with a bulbous, lens-like organ in the head called the melon. But sperm whales, largest of the toothed whales, lack a melon; theirs has devolved into a decidedly un-lens-like organ called the junk. Marine biologists believe that they instead use the massive spermaceti organ to amplify and direct sonic blasts which, given the whale’s size, would be powerful enough to knock out a giant squid. The hypothesis is lent crediblity by the fact that whalers have found old sperm whales with broken jaws, or that are missing all their teeth, yet still have a full belly. (That belly being full of calamari the size of tractor wheels.)

The other animal to use sonic blasts, on the opposite end of the size spectrum, is a shrimp.

Do not miss the video. But I’ll transcribe the basic facts: The Pistol Shrimp has a specialized claw that, when snapped shut, creates a tiny bubble in the water. That bubble collapses under the water pressure, and when it does, becomes momentarily as hot as the surface of the sun. The collapsing bubble then sends a scalding-hot shock wave towards the shrimp’s prey, with the capability of instantly killing fish several times its size. It’s a combination fireball/sonic boom.

I suppose I could muse about the genius of evolution, or the inherent elegance of the biomechanics that gave us the pistol shrimp’s claw. But not today. Today, nature is just fucking awesome.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

5 responses to “Bang Bang You’re Dead

  • Ben Bormann

    That IS fucking awesome. Feeling hungry? Eat with a snap of your fingers! Just like that! Now THAT’S a super power.

    Hotter than the surface of the sun…. Not to muse on the genius of evolution too much, but have you any idea how this function come about? Did mutation just shoot in the dark and hit a new evolutionary stable strategy? Okay, I suppose mutation ONLY takes shots in the dark, but why was this one so damned successful? Are the pistol shrimp too slow to hunt effectively without becoming easy prey for others, or maybe too weak to hunt those other shrimp? Is this the only way they acquire food? Then again, if I could fire off a superheated shockwave and take out a deer, I’d never use a spear, bow or gun to eat.

    I wonder if they have to back up against something to keep from getting pushed around by their own blasts with an equal and opposite reaction….

    • quantumbiologist

      Excellent question. Evolution really is a series of shots in the dark… quite literally, in this case. But the pistol shrimp’s trick may have originally evolved out of something else. Their “pistol” claw may have initially evolved just to make noise and ward off threats, or to do direct damage by pinching.

      It’s worth pointing out that this extremely advanced evolution is typical in shallow tropical reefs, where conditions are relatively stable for eons, not being punctuated by long ice ages.

      Bonus! The process of creating spontaneous bubbles in the water through quick motion is called “cavitation,” and is the number one threat to ship propellers. The collapsing bubbles around a propeller cause tiny pits and dents in the steel, sort of like what would happen in a massive pistol-shrimp drive-by shooting.

  • Ryk McIntyre

    Bishop absorbs energuy and re-releases it, havock generates super-charged plasma blasts. You’re more thinking along the lines of Sonnar, an old JLA villain, or maybe Dazzler, if you must quote X-Men. And then there’s the famous Grant Morrisson Animal Man issue, where Buddy borrows the ability of the pistol shrimp to shut down a bar fight.

    Just sayin…

    • quantumbiologist

      Plasma blasts. So he shoots blood?

      I wrote an earlier post about the Jubilee-like powers of a bioluminescent jellyfish, but the pistol shrimp shares more in common with Dazzler. When the bubble in its claw collapses, the liquid molecules become excited by the sound and generate a flash of light in a process called sonoluminescence. Turning sound into light? Sounds like Dazzler to me.

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