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Cephalopod Camouflage: or, why octopi are probably smarter than we are

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By Cat Viglienzoni — August 5, 2011

There are a few things in this world that consistently blow my mind. Cephalopods are one of them.

If you don’t know, cephalopods are a group of sea creatures that include most of my favorites: octopi, squid, and cuttlefish. These terrific tentacular creatures are masters of camouflage, as I have witnessed before, but came across today in a video by NPR’s Science Friday program (guilty science pleasure!). It’s so impressive I almost feel bad for liking to eat calamari and octopus.

Here is the video I’m talking about, produced by Science Friday’s Talking Science blog. It is WELL worth your time to watch.

(I love the graphic at 1:06, but the octopus from 1:45-2:10 was REALLY impressive. I also like the “moving rock trick” right before that. So cute!)

And here’s the raw footage, if you’re interested.

Not to be a broken record for what the video already told you, but what these cephalopods can do is change their color, skin texture, and pattern to match their surroundings. This acts as their primary defense mechanism should a predator come along (because as anyone who has ever eaten octopus or squid knows, their bodies are rather squishy).

They match their skin texture to their surroundings by sight, not touch, which scientists are still working to fully understand.

Oh, did I mention they’re also colorblind? And yet they’re STILL able to create color patterns that match their surroundings. Scientists don’t totally know how they do that either. (According to this SciFri blog post, only one cephalopod is known to have color vision, and that’s the firefly squid, which sees three visual pigments just like we do. The rest have rhabdomeres, which are like the squid version of the rod and cone receptors in our eyes, that allow cephalopods to see polarized and unpolarized light and enhances their perception of contrast.)

Chromatophores are tiny dots of red, yellow, and brown pigment in the skin of the cephalopods, and they are responsible for the changes in color. Reflectors under the skin produce the rest of the shorter-wavelength colors (blues and greens). When those chromatophores change shape and size, they change the predominant skin color of the cephalopod.

As for patterns, the video talks about three different basic pattern types the cephalopods use to blend in. There’s the uniform one (little or no contrast in the pattern), mottled (small light and dark blotches), and disruptive (interferes with the recognition of what the animal is). They choose their patterns based on visual cues in their environment.

And cephalopods can make these types of changes in less than a second.

Here’s a quote from Roger Hanlon, the senior scientist at the Woods Hole Institute who took the footage in the video above, on Science Friday: “Camouflage is not looking exactly like the background… we’re behind the eight-ball, as it were, if we think the world looks exactly how we see it. There’s a bunch more information there, and other animals see it very differently.”

Which means that octopi just might be smarter, in this way, then we are.


Some pics I took of cephalopods on one of my many Monterey Bay Aquarium excursions…

You know octopi are clever because they can cunningly manage to avoid getting their photos taken.

Cuttlefish are adorable, but they always look so depressed. They're like the Eeyores of the ocean.

Except when they decide to start fighting. Then they squirt back and forth locked in a tentacular battle.


Written by Cat Viglienzoni

August 5, 2011 at 4:42 PM

2 Responses

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  1. […] Especially the octopus… and check out how impressive the camouflage is (even if it’s not quite as impressive as this one)! […]

  2. what is this song called!?


    April 10, 2013 at 12:21 AM

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