Sunday 26 July 2015

Harlequin Shrimp

Image: Carmel Vernia
Hymenocera picta
Wow, what a beauty!

Shame it's just a pretty veneer surrounding a dark heart of sadistic evil...

Image: Steve Childs
I think by now we have all grown accustomed to the terrible truth of the depths of evil that lie behind the false smile of the clown. Behind those thick, blood-red lips are teeth - possibly sharpened to a point - that doubtless know the taste of human flesh.

But what of his brother in slapstick. the harlequin?

Image: Daniel Kwok
Obviously the sickening core of the harlequin - his maleficent essence - has, like that of the clown, been with us since time immemorial, lurking in shadow, nightmare and just beyond the corner of the human eye. However, his harlequin form dates back to late 16th century French and Italian theatre, where he was a masked acrobatic type in a chequered costume who jumped, tumbled and cartwheeled his way into the hearts of the viewing public.

The poor, benighted fools.

Video: Thechanhoyuen
Dancing the Devil's dance

His shrimp counterpart bears certain similarities.

They're found in warm coral reefs from Madagascar and the Red Sea all the way to Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands, via northern Australia and southeast Asia. They reach a mere 5 cm (2 in) long but that doesn't stop them catching the eye with their pearly white body and harlequin-like patches of bright, pastel colour.

Image: Steve Childs
If you dare to take a closer look you'll see they come armed with what appear to be utterly gigantic claws. The actual, snippy-snip pincers are quite small, or at least normal sized, but they have these huge, thin shields attached to them. They're like cheerfully costumed riot police ready for action... do they have undercover riot police at carnivals? Thumping their beautified shields to the music?

Between the claws is a collection of limbs that each end in a strange, flattened pad. When the shrimp holds them all together it looks something like a butterfly! Above that, between the eyes, are two long, petal-like antennae for sniffing out prey. It's all very pretty and dramatic. Not the least bit... sinister...

Image: Carmel Vernia
Harlequin Shrimp usually live in male/female pairs, females slightly larger than males. They seem to mate for life, and spend their days hidden away in crevices. As night falls the lovers emerge from their nest and seek out a romantic meal to share.

This is when the horror begins.

Image: Nemo's great uncle
Harlequins don't confine themselves to eating small things as befits their size. They turn their nose at plankton, detritus and other such fare that typically goes down well with morally upright shrimp. The Harlequin's refined palate won't even tolerate fish. No. Their delicacy of choice is starfish, big and small. They prowl the reefs until they find a promising victim and then they pick it up and drag it to their lair.

Back at home, the Harlequins turn the starfish on its back and use their pincers to snip off and eat its tube feet. The poor old starfish is almost helpless and only getting increasingly so as its tootsies are consumed.

Video: Earth Touch

Harlequins take their sweet time, as one should with a good meal, whispering sweet nothings in one another's ears as they tear off another piece of living star-flesh. They will also cut through its skin and feast on the softness within. They don't eat carrion, they like their food fresh, so they're careful to start at the extremities and make their way to the more vital organs of the central disk last of all.

Harlequins have even been seen feeding their victims to ensure they remain alive and tasty to the very end. It's an end that may take days to arrive. Days of agony. Eaten alive. Feet first. Who needs rosemary and thyme when you can season your food with suffering and agony?

Image: Tim Proffitt-White
Oh, but I couldn't eat a whole one
Perhaps I should mention that the word 'harlequin' seems to come from Hellequin, a giant who wielded a club and led a horde of demons in a chase after damned souls. In fact, the roots of harlequin are all rather mysterious and shrouded in the demonic, the pagan and the Wild.

The Harlequin Shrimp plays its part in a long tradition of evil...

Image: Chris Brown
Utter EVIL.


Lear's Fool said...

I approve of their Evil, even though I love echinoderms.

It's such PRETTY evil!

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite organisms on earth, so glad you got around to posting about them!

Joseph JG said...

@lear's Fool: Prettiness covers a multitude of sins!

@thegreatarthropodsearch: Woo! Glad you enjoyed!

Kathy Davis said...

This is a great way to describe these beautiful shrimp. At first I thought they were so innocent!!