Amazing adaptations: the master of disguise

Amazing adaptations: the master of disguise

Australian Giant Cuttlefish are masters of disguise and intrigue.

They can hide in plain sight, impersonate their fellows with ease and lure in unsuspecting prey – all by using one of nature’s most awe-inspiring adaptations. So, what is their secret?

Cuttlefish can change the colour of their skin in an instant using chromatophores – organs under the skin that expand and contract pigment sacs. If that was not enough, they also possess muscles, called papillae, that they use to change the three-dimensional physical texture of their skin at the same time. As a result, a cuttlefish can go from smooth white skin to resembling a piece of seaweed in a matter of seconds.


Image: PT Hirschfield / Pink Tank Scuba

Cuttlefish use visual cues to match the colour and texture of their background. This is despite the fact that researchers believe that, by human standards, cuttlefish are almost certainly colour-blind. The most recent research suggests that cuttlefish may have their own mechanism for processing colour, even if they can’t ‘see’ it, by focusing their pupils in a way that allows them to detect light wavelengths. This amazing adaptation makes it easy for the cuttlefish to move between habitats in the ocean and avoid a wide variety of predators.

But the cuttlefish do not only use their skills of masquerade to hide…

The colour change and patterns are also incredibly important for how cuttlefish communicate with each other. They can use visual cues to attract mates or ward off unwanted competition.

They can even go one step further, using this ability to hide their identity completely. A small male, although unable to fight to win a mate, will use his size to his advantage. He will disguise himself as a female in an attempt to slip past unsuspecting large males and mate with the female they are guarding.

So why don’t more animals use these amazing colour change adaptations? Well, as with everything in evolution, there is a trade-off. Changing colour and shape in a blink of the eye is demanding – it takes a lot of energy. The large metabolic and energetic costs of colour change likely contribute to the cuttlefish’s ‘live fast, die young’ life cycle.

But at least they get to live like rock stars while they’re here!


Image: PT Hirschfield / Pink Tank Scuba

To hear more about the fascinating lives of cuttlefish, the rock stars of the sea, check out the first episode of our new podcast series, Look at me, produced in partnership with the Australian Conservation Foundation and Guardian Australia, hosted by Benjamin Law.

Listen to last week’s episode of Look at me: ‘The amazing life and death of the ocean’s greatest camouflage expert’ online now or via your preferred podcast provider. And make sure you subscribe and tune into the next episode, on the elusive Plains-wanderer bird, out on February 7.

Our first episode on cuttlefish features PT Hirschfield, also known as Pink Tank Scuba. For more stunning cuttlefish footage, check out Pink Tank Scuba’s YouTube channel.


Banner image courtesy of Chris McCormack.

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