Patek lab postdoc Dr. Katsushi Kagaya and Prof. Patek published a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology about the control of movements that are so fast that they can't be controlled by real-time neural feedback. The study focused on the ultrafast smashing strikes of mantis shrimp and documented their use of variable muscle activitiy and spring-loading prior to movement to generate variable strikes.
To circumvent the limits of muscle, ultrafast movements achieve high power through the use of springs and latches. The time scale of these movements is too short for control through typical neuromuscular mechanisms, thus ultrafast movements are either invariant or controlled prior to movement. We tested whether mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda: Neogonodactylus bredini) vary their ultrafast smashing strikes and, if so, how this control is achieved prior to movement. We collected high-speed images of strike mechanics and electromyograms of the extensor and flexor muscles that control spring compression and latch release. During spring compression, lateral extensor and flexor units were co-activated. The strike initiated several milliseconds after the flexor units ceased, suggesting that flexor activity prevents spring release and determines the timing of strike initiation. We used linear mixed models and Akaike's information criterion to serially evaluate multiple hypotheses for control mechanisms. We found that variation in spring compression and strike angular velocity were statistically explained by spike activity of the extensor muscle. The results show that mantis shrimp can generate kinematically variable strikes and that their kinematics can be changed through adjustments to motor activity prior to the movement, thus supporting an upstream, central-nervous-system-based control of ultrafast movement. Based on these and other findings, we present a shishiodoshi model that illustrates alternative models of control in biological ballistic systems. The discovery of feed-forward control in mantis shrimp sets the stage for the assessment of targets, strategic variation in kinematics and the role of learning in ultrafast animals.