Stories From the Coral Triangle

A Master of Disguise with 8 Tentacles

Invisibility cloaks are still the stuff of research labs, but deep in the sea, an animal has turned vanishing into an art form--just by using its skin.

The following 15 sec video shows how effectively the octopus blends into the environment, essentially vanishing from sight within a few instants. The sequence may look like its straight out from a Hollywood special effects studio, but in fact it is a now viral video shot many years ago by Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory senior scientist Roger Hanlon, while studying octopuses.

What’s the trick?

Most octopuses’’ skin contains small pigment-filled cells, chromatophores, and reflective ones called iridophores and leucophores. This allows their skin to create nuanced patterns of color, luminosity and even harness polarized light that mimic their environment.

New research suggests that to achieve this, octopuses “focus” on a limited selection of nearby objects in order to determine what kind of disguise they will adopt.

Using underwater photos of the common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and the day octopus (Octopus cyanea), the researchers discovered that the almost-invisible octopuses in the images most closely “matched distinct landmarks such as corals, noticeable rocks, patches of unevenly colored sand, or an algae patch whose appearance different from that of its surroundings,” rather than the larger field of view.

Still a mystery

That still does not explain how these colour-blind animals can adapt their skin colour and texture to blend into the environment so convincingly. Light-sensing cells (opsins) in their skin may detect and react to local colour and light conditions, but so far only one hue of these cells has been discovered.

Next time you’re diving in the Coral Triangle, you may want to take a second look at that coral or tuft of seagrass--it could very well be an octopus in disguise.

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