Mantis shrimps are excellent hunters. Image credit: charlene mcbride (CC BY 2.0)

Mushroom hunting

Mantis shrimp brains contain a structure previously only seen in insect brains.

With more than four million species, arthropods are the largest and most diverse group of animals on the planet and include, for example, crustaceans, insects and spiders. They are defined by their segmented bodies, hard outer skeletons and jointed limbs. All arthropods share a common ancestor that lived more than 550 million years ago. Exactly how this ancestral arthropod gave rise to the many species that exist today is unclear but we know that at some point the arthropod family tree split into branches, one of which went on to become the crustaceans. The crustacean branch then split again, giving rise to a line of descendants that would become the insects.

But although insects evolved from crustaceans, the brains of insects possess structures that those of crustaceans do not. Known as mushroom bodies, these structures help to form and store memories. Their absence in crustaceans has therefore been an enduring mystery. Gabriella Hannah Wolff and co-workers now add a piece to the puzzle by showing that one group of modern-day crustaceans, the mantis shrimps, does in fact possess mushroom bodies.

By visualizing cells and pathways within the brains of mantis shrimps, and also a number of closely related species, Wolff and colleagues show that only these shrimps possess true mushroom bodies. However, some of the mantis shrimp’s close relatives possess a few attributes of these structures. This suggests that mushroom bodies are evolutionarily ancient structures that arose in a common ancestor of insects and crustaceans, before being lost or radically modified in most of the crustaceans.

So why did this happen? Mantis shrimps are top predators with excellent vision that hunt over considerable distances, requiring them to evaluate and memorize complex features of their environment. These cognitive demands, which might not be shared by other crustaceans, may have led to the mantis shrimps retaining their mushroom bodies. Further research into the brains and behavior of the mantis shrimp may provide insights into how mushroom bodies construct memories of a complex sensory world.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “An insect-like mushroom body in a crustacean brain” (September 26, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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