An Electrophysiological Investigation of Power-Amplification in the Ballistic Mantis Shrimp Punch

J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2019 Jun 30;17(2):T12-T18. eCollection 2019 Spring.


Mantis shrimp are aggressive, burrowing crustaceans that hunt using one the fastest movements in the natural world. These stomatopods can crack the calcified shells of prey or spear down unsuspecting fish with lighting speed. Their strike makes use of power-amplification mechanisms to move their limbs much faster than is possible by muscles alone. Other arthropods such as crickets and grasshoppers also use power-amplified kicks that allow these animals to rapidly jump away from predator threats. Here we present a template laboratory exercise for studying the electrophysiology of power-amplified limb movement in arthropods, with a specific focus on mantis shrimp strikes. The exercise is designed in such a way that it can be applied to other species that perform power-amplified limb movements (e.g., house crickets, Acheta domesticus) and species that do not (e.g., cockroaches, Blaberus discoidalis). Students learn to handle the animals, make and implant electromyogram (EMG) probes, and finally perform experiments. This integrative approach introduces the concept of power-amplified neuromuscular control; allows students to develop scientific methods, and conveys high-level insights into behavior, and convergent evolution, the process by which different species evolve similar traits. Our power-amplification laboratory exercise involves a non-terminal preparation which allows electrophysiological recordings across multiple days from arthropods using a low-cost EMG amplifier. Students learn the principles of electrophysiology by fabricating their own electrode system and performing implant surgeries. Students then present behaviorally-relevant stimuli that generate attack strikes in the animals during the electrophysiology experiments to get insight into the underlying mechanisms of power amplification. Analyses of the EMG data (spike train burst duration, firing rate, and spike amplitude) allow students to compare mantis shrimp with other power-amplifying species, as well as a non-power-amplifying one. The major learning goal of this exercise is to empower students by providing an experience to develop their own setup to examine a complex biological principle. By contrasting power-amplifiers with non-power-amplifiers, these analyses highlight the peculiarity of power amplification at multiple levels of analysis, from behavior to physiology. Our comparative design requires students to consider the behavioral function of the movement in different species alongside the neuromuscular underpinnings of each movement. This laboratory exercise allows students to develop methodology, problem-solving and inquisitive skills crucial for pursuing science.

Keywords: behavior; convergent evolution; electrophysiology; motor control; muscle activity; power amplification.