Through the Eyes of a Shrimp

third year hana rehman

photo by noah buchanan

photo by noah buchanan

When I was younger, some book or perhaps the internet told me that the mantis shrimp can see more colors than human beings. For a while, this was my favorite random piece of nature trivia. I bestowed it upon everyone I knew. Something about it wouldn’t let me go. I latched onto this little, kaleidoscopic crustacean with powerful claws and eyes like steampunk goggles. (Go look up a picture. They’re pretty amazing.) Over the years, when I have been pressed to think about what inspires or amazes me, I have thought back to the mantis shrimp and the fact that its eyes are so complex, that they can pick up on things we could never even conceive of.

And of course, after recently doing a bit of actual research, I discovered that this isn’t even true.

As it turns out, studies have indicated that though the mantis shrimp eye has more photoreceptors than the human eye, they don’t necessarily see more colors than we can. One study even found that they differentiate between hues of the same colors worse than we do. (Thanks, mantis shrimp. You’ve crushed me. Now I have to go find a new favorite random piece of nature trivia.)

Despite my disillusionment, this recent discovery made me think about why I romanticized this animal so much in the first place.

The reason I think the fact first snagged me is because it bothered me. The idea that a mere shrimp could experience something potentially beautiful, yet completely invisible to us seemed like an incredible, yet almost unfair reminder of our own limitations. The world is made up of so much beyond our perception of it. Our senses are only in tune with a small portion of what is out there. But, unexplainably, at some point this reminder ceased to bother me and in some ways began to give me comfort.

Perhaps if we could see or touch or hear everything there is to see or touch or hear, the world would be more confined. There would be so much less to discover, to chase after. It would seem smaller.

I think there is some comfort to be found in the vast complexity of it all. It’s a nice thought that even just ordinary, everyday objects have more dimensions to them than we can perceive. That there are more colors out there than our eyes can detect. Even if a shrimp can’t see them either, doesn’t mean they don’t exist

The mantis shrimp isn’t entirely a disappointment. It still has one of the most complex set of eyes in the animal kingdom. It may not see more colors than we can, but it has a completely different method of processing what it sees. It, like many other creatures, still serves as a reminder that life is experienced in inconceivably different ways - even the differences in how people see the world are astounding. It may be a simple reminder, but it is wonderful how impossible it is to imagine just how much is beyond us.