Hundreds of weird three-eyed 'dinosaur shrimp' emerge after heavy rain

The miniature pink critters basically look like Pokemon, and evolve from eggs like them, too.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
2 min read

The front view of a longtail tadpole shrimp, or triops longicaudatus, shows its third eye. The species is called a living fossil as it's had the same morphology for 70 million years.

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Tourists roaming Wupatki National Monument, an ancestral Puebloan site in Arizona, recently stumbled upon some unlikely fellow visitors -- hundreds of pre-dinosaur-era three-eyed shrimp. The little critters presumably infested a ball court at the park after a monsoon filled it to the brim.

Formally named triops, the gentle beasts that roamed Earth hundreds of millions of years ago literally have a third eye. It's smack in the middle of their two compound buggy ones that peer straight ahead. The creatures, also called tadpole shrimp, are an inch or two long and their peachy pink bodies have a crest-shaped torso that tapers off into a dangly tail. 

They're the epitome of creepy, yet somehow adorable. They basically look like Pokemon.

It's not uncommon to find a few of these guys in the wild, and some pet stores even sell them, claiming triopses are low-maintenance friends -- they only live up to about 90 days. But for tourists to find hundreds of the alien-like creatures at the site of a national monument is definitely... new.

Puebloan farmers fled from from modern-day Flagstaff to the region of Wupatki National Monument following the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano 900 years ago. Within the area, now protected by the state and open for tourism, there's a circular ball court that used to be the site where cultural ideas got exchanged. The court measures about 105 feet (32 meters) in diameter.

In late July, however, these whimsical shrimp filled the former intellectual meeting spot. Lauren Carter, lead interpretation ranger at Wupatki National Monument "just scooped it up with [her] hand and looked at it and was like 'What is that?'" she said in a statement.

Presumably, the triple-eyed shellfish abruptly emerged in the triple digits due to Arizona's late-July monsoon. These shrimp can lay eggs that remain dormant until enough water is present. A monsoon's downpour could've easily activated a bunch of their already-laid eggs to hatch. 

Carter said she first learned of the critters' presence in the rainwater pond by a tourist wandering the park. Eventually, she and the rest of the staff concluded these strange-looking shrimp could be freshwater versions of triops called triops longicaudatus. They note that further scientific analysis is needed to confirm that hypothesis.

The exceptionally astute organisms -- visually, that is -- were apparently spotted by birds in the area and promptly turned into an avian dinner. But who's to say they didn't lay a few more eggs in their chosen breeding grounds at Wuptaki?