Pistol shrimp next to goby fish on sea floor
Pistol shrimp next to goby fish on sea floor

Are Pistol Shrimp Dangerous to Humans?

Featured Image Credit: User:Haplochromis, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons | cropped and scaled

When you think of an animal with a formidable attack, you likely aren’t thinking of a 10-millimeter shrimp, but you should. The pistol shrimp can generate a blast almost as hot as the surface of the sun by snapping its large front claw and generating a powerful percussion. Hence its other nickname, “the snapping shrimp”.

The booming snap would surely make the pistol shrimp an unwelcome spectator at the Masters golf tournament since its blast reaches as loud as 218 decibels – louder than a jet engine. However, thanks to the nature of water and its sound-deadening abilities, you’d have to listen closely to hear it. So, worry not dear readers, your eardrums are safe for now.

Infographic showing how the pistol shrimp claw mechanism works
Carvermyers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What Makes Pistol Shrimp so Powerful?

The enormous front claw of the snapping shrimp is key to its devastating attack. The claw is almost half of its body length. Yeah, it’s big. The top pincer of this claw acts as a plunger, squeezing the air until blasting a bubble at upwards of 62 miles per hour. The bubble then implodes onto the kinetically charged air within, generating around 8,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don’t worry. The radius of this shockwave is tiny and can merely stun and potentially kill the small fish and invertebrates it hunts as prey. Lucky for us humans, our skin can withstand a minuscule hit like that. The enormous claw itself also poses no danger since its ability to weaponize air replaces the pinching function you’d expect from this type of claw. It’s basically a suped-up version of the air cannon toys we played with as kids.

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The Pistol Shrimp’s Other Superpower

The big claw might be the meat, but the smaller claw is the potatoes. Both are important. In contrast to the intimidating size of the firing claw, the snapping shrimp’s smaller claw looks like a sad imitation, but this is a one-two punch. The larger claw attacks the pistol shrimp’s prey while the smaller is used to drag its meal back to the den. And though the smaller claw might look like a joke, it has an equally impressive superpower of its own.


If the pistol shrimp were to lose its pistol claw, it would be defenseless, right? Wrong. Upon losing the large claw to a frisky predator, the pistol shrimp’s smaller claw actually grows and reforms to take on the role of its primary defense. From there, the scrappy critter grows a replacement small claw on the previously injured side. To put it simply: The small claw becomes the big claw and the no claw becomes the small claw. Okay, that might still be a little confusing, but you’re a smart cookie.

Pistol shrimp in burrow with goby fish

You’d Have to Try Pretty Hard to Encounter a Pistol Shrimp in the First Place

Pistol shrimp can be found anywhere from reefs to kelp forests, but they prefer areas in shallow water with plenty of places to hide – rocky, sponge-dominated environments mostly. So, you’d have to dig around to find them even if they had the ability to hurt you. Which they really don’t.


Another fun fact about these sharpshooting crustaceans is their buddy system. You can usually find them sharing a burrow with goby fish in a mutualistic relationship. The snapping shrimp may be known for their fantastic weapon, but their eyesight is quite poor. They need their goby partner to alert them of danger. The shrimp, in turn, maintains the burrow. In the process of doing the housekeeping, the pistol shrimp unearths smaller invertebrates for the goby’s dinner. Probably the best roommate situation ever. But that poor eyesight means the pistol shrimp couldn’t see you very well if it was hunting you down. Which it wouldn’t.


At the end of the day, pistol shrimp are powerful hunters and great roommates, but they can’t and don’t want to hurt humans. If faced with one of our species, the snapping shrimp would simply hide in the safety of its burrow. Pound for pound, the pistol shrimp is one of the most powerful animals in the ocean, but they’re just too small to pose us any threat.

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