The Super Shark Encyclopedia was a patient in my class’ book hospital the other day. As I was flipping through the book, looking for pages to tape (and looking for a distraction from the endless noise of free play – blocks falling, cars rolling, dinosaurs roaring – Calgon, take me away!), I came across the Barrel Shrimp. The description was intriguing. The barrel shrimp is a translucent creature that eats the center of another creature then uses that remaining barrel shape as a floating stroller for its eggs. I knew immediately that I needed to find out more about this shrimp.
My first research attempts
If you google barrel shrimp, you will get many results for an entree at Cracker Barrel. Not exactly what I was looking for. Adding animal to the search brings you closer but a lot of results are about shrimp in general as opposed to this barrel shrimp specifically. Finally I found a link to the Plankton Chronicles website. This site has a video of the barrel shrimp in action. The title of the video – “Phronima: Monsters in Barrels” Monsters in a barrel? Things are getting interesting! Here’s a copy of the video on YouTube if you are unable to view it on the original site.
At Plankton Chronicles I learned that the barrel shrimp are very tiny (only about an inch long) and these barrels are actually made of salp which is a jelly plankton. The description compares the barrel shrimp to the hermit crab but instead of inhabiting larger and larger shells, it finds larger and larger salps to eat and occupy.
Science and the Sea explains it this way:
“The female catches a small, barrel-shaped marine animal called a salp, then uses her mouth and claws to eat the insides and hollow out the ends. She then squeezes inside the gelatinous barrel she created and lays her eggs. As the young hatch, the mother holds on to the barrel and propels the entire brood through the water, bringing fresh food and water to her babies.”
My search results for barrel shrimp were fairly paltry so this time I searched under the scientific name, phronima. Much better. At the top of the list is an article on theconversation.com with excellent photos and a bit of juicy info. Apparently, the phronima was the inspiration for the chest-bursting xenomorph in the film Alien. Now we’re talking! That’s the exact kind of trivia and behind-the-scenes info I love to find!
Is it true?
Of course, there is controversy surrounding this claim. Further reading leads me to believe that the phronima was not actually the inspiration despite the uncanny resemblance. The design of the alien in Alien was based on a drawing by H. R. Giger. Click here to see the original artwork entitled Necronom IV.
Where can I see a picture?
A drawing of a male phronima from University of Washington libraries-
Being tiny and translucent, good photographs (in the public domain) of the elusive barrel shrimp are hard to come by. Check my links to see some good pictures (the best pictures are on Solvin Zankl’s photography site, Plankton Chronicles and Converstion.com). Or you can always just use your imagination. Despite the fact that the phronima wasn’t actually the inspiration for the alien, there are many similarities. I’m sure you could come up with quite the picture in your head!
Did you hear that the Smithsonian recently released over 2 million images into the public domain? Awesome! And thanks to them, I can now add a photo of a barrel shrimp to my story.
More about the Plankton Chronicles Project:
The Plankton Chronicles Project is a short documentary series combining art and science, revealing the beauty and diversity of organisms adrift in the currents.
A book has been published with images from the project. You can find it on Amazon. (not at my local library unfortunately but maybe you’ll have better luck) The images on the website are beautiful.
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Conversation.com article with great photos
Wikipedia article about the Alien – extremely detailed origin story and world-building
Gorgeous photos by Solvin Zankl, a German photographer – definitely worth going to see his photos of the phronima