Seeing Super-Fast Animals

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A high-speed video camera is a must for biologist Sheila Patek, of University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Patek studies the lesser-known speed demons of the animal kingdom. A trap-jaw ant can move at over 100mph and a mantis shrimp can accelerate with a g-force of 100,000 (the space shuttle accelerates at 3Gs).


With us here now is Flora Lichtman and our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: What you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This week, we are taking a look at the secret speed demons of the animal kingdom. Forget, you know, forget the cheetahs.

FLATOW: That was immediately the one comes to mind, right?

LICHTMAN: Me, too.

FLATOW: Cheetahs.

LICHTMAN: I think speedy ones, I think cheetah, I think gazelle...


LICHTMAN: ...something. No.


LICHTMAN: Microfauna, my favorite.


LICHTMAN: These are - we're talking shrimp, ants...

FLATOW: Wait a minute. Shrimp? A - shrimp is fast...


...speed demon?

Speed demon. OK. So let me give you these - so let me just blow your mind with some statistics...

FLATOW: OK. OK. Please.

LICHTMAN: ...just because it's almost too good to be true. Sheila Patek is the biologist at UMass Amherst, by the way, who loaned us this amazing video footage that you can see on the website and told me this. So mantis shrimp are these kind of little, weird lobster-y looking things. They can move their punching claw - they don't have - they have a little puncher - 50 miles per hour in water.


LICHTMAN: Fifty miles per hour. And the force that they produce with that claw...


SHEILA PATEK: They can strike with peak forces of over 1,500 Newtons. So this is like a stick of margarine-sized animal hitting with over 300 pounds of peak force.


FLATOW: Wow. Wow.

LICHTMAN: If you are a snail, that's no good. That was Sheila Patek, by the way. So it's kind of amazing to watch them in action. And, of course, you need a high-speed video. It really doesn't look like much.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: We have some real-time video, and you don't really see anything. With the high-speed video - and they can record at 100,000 frames per second - you see not only the punch happening, but this - this was just amazing - a cavitation bubble is formed when the mantis shrimp punches in water. It's sort of like boiling. So this bubble forms, and the collapse of that bubble also helps to strike the prey.


LICHTMAN: It's really neat.

FLATOW: And so it's on a video, and it's up there on our Video Pick of the Week And that's how it attacks? It beats up, like a boxer, and knocks them out with this...

LICHTMAN: We have an amazing footage of a mantis shrimp just knocking a crab to bits. That's a little sad, but you can...

FLATOW: Where else are you going to see that?

LICHTMAN: That's exactly right.


LICHTMAN: But it gets even better. So I was - you know, mantis shrimp blew me away. And then Sheila Patek was, like, but meet...

FLATOW: But wait. There's more.

LICHTMAN: There's more. Meet the trap-jaw ant, which makes the mantis shrimp looks slow. These ants can close their mandibles at 100 miles per hour, she says.

FLATOW: No kidding.

LICHTMAN: That's just amazing. So they're spring-loaded. The - you know, one of the main question is: How do you produce a force this fast?

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And it's these sort of springs that you load up with these slow muscles, and then a latch, basically, unhooks them.

FLATOW: Twang. Just like that and it's - that's what...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And that's the sound you would imagine when you see them on the website, because they just fly in all directions. And this, you know, they actually can use their mandibles to locomote. So if you're a researcher, you can imagine this might get you into trouble.


PATEK: If you happen to be in the field studying these ants and you walk into an ant nest, all of a sudden, they'll be like popcorn, firing their jaws against the ground, flying themselves into the air and landing on you. And you'll soon discover and be reminded that ants are related to bumble bees and things like that that have great, big stingers. And they all start stinging you.

FLATOW: Flying ants.


FLATOW: Popcorn ants stinging you.

LICHTMAN: This is, like, the best video. This is just - I love the video footage that Dr. Patek provided. It's really fun.

FLATOW: It's a great footage. And you said that these things are popping in her aquaria that she keeps in her lab, the shrimp?

LICHTMAN: Yes. The mantis shrimp, too, apparently can be a little bit intimidating. If - this is what Dr. Patek said. If they're in a bad mood, they'll knock on the glass. And actually, other researchers have told me and shown me pictures of mantis shrimp breaking the aquarium wall. That's how powerful they are.

FLATOW: And you carry them around from place to place.

LICHTMAN: Oh, yeah. And you can carry them in, like, water bottles, but they'll break those, too. It's - the things is the forces - the strike is so fast that it's like a welt. But if they spear you - some have spears - you're in trouble.


FLATOW: I hate it when that happens. That's Flora's Video Pick of the Week. You can see it up there on our website, It's unbelievable stuff, as always. Thank you, Flora.

Thanks, Ira.

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