New research on mantis shrimp larvae conducted by Kathryn Feller ’06 has gained significant attention this fall with the publication of a trailblazing study in The Journal of Experimental Biology, as well as coverage by National Geographic and Discovery.com. Feller, whose doctoral work is on the subject, also has successfully defended her dissertation, “The Visual Ecology of Stomatopod Larvae,” at University of Maryland – Baltimore County where she is receiving her Ph.D. The in-depth study investigates the ability of mantis shrimp larvae to camouflage their eyes – an exceedingly rare anatomical characteristic found in living creatures.
Through the research, Feller and her colleagues found that the small, translucent larvae were able to reflect light off their eyes in such a way that it makes them invisible in their underwater surroundings. “I am invested in basic research, which means figuring out how the world works,” Feller says. “The general question is: how do animals see the world? The benefit of this line of research is that, since evolution has been tinkering with organisms for millions of years to solve a problem, by studying this, we can be inspired. Someone can come along in future years and discover what we’ve done and apply it to another line of research.”
The larvae tested by Feller live near Lizard Island Research Station along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Feller co-authored the study with Thomas Cronin, a professor in the UMBC Department of Biological Sciences. The research is the first to test the cause of the larvae’s transparent eyes. Many scientists had speculated on how the young mantis shrimp were able to have seemingly transparent eyes, but no one had actually put their theory to the test.
“I am involved in visual ecology, the study of how visual systems have evolved to meet the needs of animals in different ecological settings,” she says. “We like to say, ‘if it has eyes, we can study it.'” If you look at the eyes of a mantis shrimp they have an opalescent blue or green shine under the right light, Feller told National Geographic in a recent article. While wading in the waters of Australia, Feller was able to capture and measure “the contrast between the reflected light coming from the animals’ eyes and the background light under water,” she told the magazine.
According to the article, Feller and her colleagues hypothesized that the eyeshine – or the reflected light off the eyes of the larva – was specific to the region where the species of mantis shrimp lives. In National Geographic, they explained that “a mantis shrimp from the Western Atlantic Ocean would not be able to match the light environment” of a mantis shrimp from the Lizard Island area, for example.
In National Geographic, Christos Ioannou, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bristol in the U.K., called Feller’s work “a very thorough, convincing paper.” In addition, Daniel Osorio, a visual scientist at the University of Sussex in the U.K., stated in the article that “the researchers did a good job showing how this eyeshine hides mantis shrimp’s eyes.”
Feller and her colleagues are continuing with their research by exploring the cause of how the mantis shrimp create the reflections allowing their eyes to appear transparent. In addition to her research, Feller is also a science illustrator-creating visual explanations of her research and that of others.
Following the completion of her doctoral program, Feller will travel to The Graduate University of Advanced Studies in Japan to participate in a post-doctoral lab on how butterflies process visual information.
For Feller, her scientific research began at the Colleges during the summer before her senior year, when Feller embarked on a study of bat vision with Department Chair and Associate Professor of Biology Kristy Kenyon. “Even though I had no prior experience with that research, Professor Kenyon took a risk in taking me into her lab, and it ended up being very successful,” Feller says. “We produced a publication based on it. That experience set me on this track I am on currently.”
At HWS, Feller double majored in environment studies and biology. In addition to her passion for science, Feller also was a member of Hai Timiai, Laurel Society, Phi Beta Kappa honors society and graduated magna cum laude. In the photos above, Kathryn Feller ’06, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, studies mantis shrimp near Lizard Island Research Station along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.