Octopus: The Master of Disguise

A species of coral (Pavona bipartita) lies on the sandy ocean floor. It seems to be immobile, swaying only with the murky currents of the sea. Suddenly, it dashes off into the distance. This peculiar coral has now disappeared, and all that’s visible is a black and white, poisonous sea snake (Laticauda semifasciata), wriggling on the sea floor. In a matter of seconds, the sea snake transforms again into a menacing lionfish (Pterois volitans), aggressively displaying its venomous spines.

What’s incredible is that all “three” of these species were actually mimicked by one — an octopus.

In some cases faster than a chameleon, octopuses have the ability to change the color of their skin at lightning speed. Octopuses and squid, belonging to the class celaphopoda, use specialized cells called chromatophores and iridocytes to rapidly change the color of their skin.1

Biochemistry professor Daniel E. Morse and his team at University of California, Santa Barbara, discovered that iridocytes on the skin of squid contain reflective layers that can shift skin color.2 These reflective layers are affected by the amount of water within the skin cells and the passage of water through the cell membranes.3

“The animal can control the extent to which this happens … It can pick the color — and it’s also reversible. The precision of this tuning by regulating the nanoscale dimensions of the lamellae is amazing,” Morse said.4

Some octopuses, like the blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata), use bioluminescence to ward off predators.5

Source: Daily Telegraph

The bright blue light of this octopus’s pattern deters potential predators because they think, rightfully, that the blue-ringed octopus is poisonous.

“Squid and other marine creatures create light by mixing two substances into a third that gives off light, similar to the mechanism by which a common firefly lights up or the way the popular plastic green glow-sticks work,” marine scientist and author Dr. Ellen J. Prager wrote.6

Others can even change the texture of their skin with small bumps called papillae.7 Texture variety combined with color change allows octopuses to blend inconspicuously with rocky coral. Because octopuses have no skeleton and their skin is soft and flexible, they can easily change their shape, increasing the range of species that they can mimic.

Source: Convergent Science Network

One species of octopus, the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), takes advantage of its ability to change color, texture, and shape to transform into 15 different species, including lion fish, crabs, sea snakes, flounder, sting rays, and sea anemones.8

Source: National Geographic

“No other animal has been found that is able to rapidly change between different forms of mimicry,” Dr. Tom Tregenza, professor of evolutionary ecology, said.9

Whether an octopus mimics a lionfish or simply blends in with a rock, the history of evolution has offered octopuses with one of the most versatile defense strategies of the animal kingdom.

Works Cited:   [ + ]

1. “How do squid and octopuses change color?” Scientific American. February 19, 2002. Accessed April 08, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-squid-and-octopuse.
2. Howard, Jacqueline. “Squid, Octopus Color Change Ability Tied to ‘Switchable’ Cells & Water Flux.” The Huffington Post. July 28, 2013. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/28/squid-octopuses-color-change-cells_n_3659351.html.
3. Howard, Jacqueline. “Squid, Octopus Color Change Ability Tied to ‘Switchable’ Cells & Water Flux.” The Huffington Post. July 28, 2013. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/28/squid-octopuses-color-change-cells_n_3659351.html.
4. Howard, Jacqueline. “Squid, Octopus Color Change Ability Tied to ‘Switchable’ Cells & Water Flux.” The Huffington Post. July 28, 2013. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/28/squid-octopuses-color-change-cells_n_3659351.html.
5. Meyer, Fox. “How Octopuses and Squids Change Color.” Ocean Portal Smithsonian. October 8, 2013. Accessed April 8, 2017. http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/how-octopuses-and-squids-change-color.
6. “How do squid and octopuses change color?” Scientific American. February 19, 2002. Accessed April 08, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-squid-and-octopuse.
7. Meyer, Fox. “How Octopuses and Squids Change Color.” Ocean Portal Smithsonian. October 8, 2013. Accessed April 8, 2017. http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/how-octopuses-and-squids-change-color.
8. “Mimic Octopus.” Wikipedia. April 06, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimic_octopus.
9. “Mimic Octopus.” Wikipedia. April 06, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimic_octopus.

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