Mantis Shrimp Color Terms:
A Study of Research-Driven Interspecies Creolization
by Francis Burlingham Constable, CDR (Ret.)
Former Research Director,
Hail Hole Naval Research Facility, Sapelo Island, Georgia
Among the less publicized US government research facilities of the Cold War was the Hail Hole Naval Research Facility, which was active from 1951 until its closure in 1978 for reasons that must remain classified. This research facility was devoted to the more speculative, and indeed outré, projects that could not be carried out in such facilities as the US Naval Research Laboratory for reasons of potential institutional embarrassment. In fact, the former staff members of Hail Hole take pride in the fact that until the publication of this article was approved, no word of the existence of this facility had ever leaked to the press.
During the years Hail Hole was active, it sponsored a total of 23 research projects for the Navy and Marine Corps in 12 laboratories equipped through the use of miscellaneous budget funds. While not the most successful project, the Mantis Shrimp Linguistic Analysis, Recruitment, Training, and Service Program yielded the scientifically most valuable results. It was started in 1958 in Laboratory 7 and ultimately served the purpose of investigating the possibility of using the remarkably developed color perception and impressive offensive capabilities of the mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda) to destroy Soviet warships, especially submarines, in mass attacks. The first five years were devoted to defining the basic parameters of mantis shrimp vision and physiology as a routine project in basic research. However, the loss of the USS Thresher on 10 April 1963 suggested the possibility that one of the most up-to-date US nuclear submarines had been destroyed by a sneak attack of Soviet-backed mantis shrimps, and while this was eventually ruled out by the court of inquiry, it sufficed to secure a massive expansion of research funds.
The mantis shrimp is a fascinating creature. Its eyes have anywhere from 12 to 16 distinct color receptors whose sensitivities extend into the infrared and the ultraviolet, and it is capable of detecting circularly-polarized light. Moreover, its front claws are capable of accelerations of over 10,000 g, causing impacts that can shatter glass; the motion of its claws can cause cavitation and even sonoluminescence. The revised research project had the following goals:
- To analyze the organization of mantis shrimp color perception;
- To use the results of (1) to establish the basic colors of mantis shrimp perception;
- To determine whether the basic colors have behavioral correlates, or can be associated with particular gestures;
- To determine the extent to which other senses than vision could be used in a generalized linguistic manner (arbitrary association of percept and category) to trigger the behavioral correlates or gestural associations;
- To determine whether mantis shrimps are amenable to mass training as a basis for defensive or offensive action; and
- If so, to determine the best methods of recruitment, training, and discipline.
The first goal was studied extensively in the years 1958–1962. Several dozen mantis shrimps of several species were exposed to artificial light whose spectral characteristics could be freely varied, and their neural and behavioral responses were recorded. As only seven receptors are necessary to fully characterize any color, factor analysis was carried out to determine the combinations of color receptor response corresponding to what could be postulated to be prototypical colors. Interpretation of the results was somewhat difficult, in that neural responses and behavioral responses did not coincide and individual variation was fairly significant. Nonetheless, a general set of six prototypical color values was obtained that showed enough invariance to serve as a basis for further research.
Once a set of basic colors had been obtained, the next, even trickier task was to determine whether a set of prototypical color terms could be posited in any meaningful sense: That is, whether the basic colors might serve as the bases of categories that could be associated in turn with perceptual patterns perceived through other senses. This ran up against the basic problem of how one could even tell that such associations existed or had been formed. This problem seemed insurmountable until one researcher realized that strong correlations between basic color and the parameters of claw motion (acceleration, direction, path) allowed a textbook behaviorist stimulus-response analysis to be performed with a high degree of reliability. This obviated the need at that point in the project to extend the analysis to other sensory modalities, and it allowed detailed studies of perception times.
It was at this point that the loss of the Thresher caused the project to be greatly expanded; theory and free-wheeling scientific investigation gave way to practice and rigorous military discipline. The basic color terms were given standard names on analogy with human color terms: Romeo, Oscar, Yankee, Golf, Bravo, and Papa, and as an aid to the training personnel, the strobe lights used to produce the colors the mantis shrimps were to be trained with were equipped electronically to shine the color corresponding to its name. (The circuitry to manage this required mutually beneficial top-secret dealings with the Haskins Laboratory.) Once this was in place, humans were able to communicate, we hoped, with mantis shrimps.
The next problem was that of discovering how to motivate mantis shrimps to do anything besides what mantis shrimps like to do, which is basically to crush hard-shelled things and eat them in dark holes. The training personnel quickly discovered that the usual methods of military discipline were entirely unavailing, and after several of them had had their fingers sliced to the bone by aggrieved mantis shrimps, they were readily convinced by the research psychologists that the carrot might work better than the stick.
It was in this task that the fourth goal was achieved and a system of something approximating true color terms was attained. After several months, the psychologists managed to train the mantis shrimps to associate each color with the flavor of a particular crustacean and both the color and the flavor with a particular gesture. For example, by exposing mantis shrimps to the color Oscar at the same time that they were given Alaskan king crab chunks, the shrimps were made to produce an acceleration of 6,000–8,000 g with the left claw in the upper third of the left half of the visual field with acceptable reliability (averaging 80% repetition by 90% of the subjects). Once the association was set, the crustacean flavor could be dispensed with and the colors themselves used in Pavlovian fashion to train the shrimps in mass drills. Directions for movement were encoded as intermediate colors following three pulses of Bravo, with the proportion of each color encoding either one of the Cartesian coordinates of the direction of motion or the speed.
The effectiveness of the system was inadvertently demonstrated when one hapless recruit was caught in the training tank one evening when the strobe light circuit had not been turned off. The psychologist on duty ran through a draft flanking and attack maneuver that left the recruit bruised, bloodied, and battered unconscious. Upon his own request, the recruit was transferred to kitchen duty, where a few years later he was awarded a medal for innovative shrimp recipes developed in the course of therapy, while the psychologist was first awarded a citation for successful tactical maneuvers, then demoted for failing to kill the target.
The program seemed destined for ever greater successes, but in a particularly ill-judged attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program, my predecessor as the Mantis Shrimp Project Director decided to launch a major surprise mantis shrimp attack on the USS George Washington on 27 Sept 1968 as it lay off the Georgia coast. Six Navy Seals led the attack by dragging strobe lights from mini-subs towards the George Washington. Once the mantis shrimps were in position, the order was given to attack in force. Unfortunately, the sneak attack mostly served to show that while mantis shrimps can shatter glass, their effects on hardened steel are virtually nil, and once the submarine got underway, all but one of the mantis shrimps in the attacking force were sucked into the submarine’s propeller and turned into fish food. When the surviving shrimp was ordered to follow the quickly departing submarine, it mutinied and severed the jugular of one Seal, whereupon it was court-martialed and eaten by its commanding officer in scampi sauce.
Unfortunately, my predecessor had invited his superior officers to watch the attack; had he not done so, his career might have ended less disastrously, for the attack made absolutely no impression on the George Washington and was completely unnoticed by its crew and thus would have been completely lost in the mists of time. As a result, I was promoted to his position. The failure of mass mantis shrimp attacks upon modern ocean-going vessels discredited the Navy’s policy and opened the door to the slightly more successful policy urged by the Marine Corps of using mantis shrimps as a first line of defense against amphibious invasions of American territory, though in fact the major practical result of the project is that the descendants of the demobilized mantis shrimps living around Sapelo Island are really nasty vicious creatures that the local residents hate with a great passion.
The project was finally canceled in 1974 due to several factors.
- Mantis shrimps are not much military use against anything stronger than a clam shell, though if it is discovered that a foreign power has managed to weaponize clams (efforts at Hail Hole to do so were remarkably unsuccessful), the use of mantis shrimps in an offensive capacity would be strongly indicated.
- Mantis shrimps are ornery beasts that are most effectively disciplined with a pot of boiling water and a well-stocked spice rack.
- Mantis shrimp training personnel tend to be either utterly ineffective or require extensive therapy afterwards.
- Statistical analyses of the results of the project have been taken as showing results indistinguishable from chance, but as these analyses were conducted by a former Coast Guard officer, it is likely that inter-service rivalry and turf wars over funding influenced the results.
- An evaluation of the project results by a panel of linguists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology strongly criticized the methodology as “incorrigibly structuralist and too descriptivist to be classified as scientific under even the most generous interpretation of the term,” after which funding was transferred to a project to use lexicalist models of language to analyze the acquisition of the names of military ranks by new recruits.
The successes of the program were purely scientific. First, as one of the project psychologists pointed out to me, the project was strongly significant for behaviorist and associationist psychological theories—not so much for mantis shrimps, which are only to be expected to be strongly influenced by positive and negative stimuli, but for the humans who worked with them and developed strongly antipathetic behaviors towards crustaceans in particular and the ocean in general, so much so that after leaving the service most of them moved to Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. More importantly, not only was the visual perception of mantis shrimps exhaustively studied and the frontiers of marine ethology greatly expanded, but the project created the first creole shared between two different species—a highly restricted and regimented language, granted, but one that bridged the gap between human language and mantis shrimp perception and that could be used to coordinate joint human-mantis shrimp military actions, however disastrously.