Feature Cuttlefish profile_Mark Snyder

Kings of Camouflage

Published January 12, 2014 in DIVING & SNORKELING, Invertebrates, MARINE LIFE, Underwater Photography, Underwater Videography

With eight arms growing out of their heads, and three hearts pumping blue blood through their pliable, gelatinous bodies, cuttlefish may seem like creatures from another planet, but they actually thrive in abundant numbers on the colorful reefs of Wakatobi.

Alien-like intelligence from the deep blue

It could be lurking close by, blending in perfectly with the coral reef or a sea grass bed. But unless the cuttlefish chooses to reveal itself, you could swim right by this alien-like creature without even knowing it was there. Sometimes referred to as “the chameleon of the sea,” cuttlefish have a remarkable ability to rapidly alter their skin color and patterning at will—sometimes seeming to disappear among their surroundings, then suddenly exploding in a pulsating display of moving light that can hypnotize prey or signal to others of their kind.

Wakatobi
Cuttlefish have specialized pigment cells in their skin called “chromatophores”, which contain coloured pigment particles that are activated by the nervous system or by hormonal signals.  Photo by Warren Baverstock

Broadclub cuttlefish blog_photo Walt Stearns
The same neurotransmitters that allow cuttlefish to control their color and skin texture to blend with the bottom, also allow them to communicate.  Photo by Walt Stearns

Cuttlefish belong to the mollusk class Cephalopoda—which means ‘head-footed.’ The name is derived from the Greek words kephale (head) and podes (feet)—ranging from 2.4 centimeters (around one inch) to 90 centimeters (three feet) in length. A species in Australia, can reach the length of a small man.

Cuttlefish on reef _Walt Stearns
The cuttlefish is a bottom-dweller which often lies in ambush for smaller animals.  Photo by Walt Stearns

Amazing displays of colors 

Cuttlefish have skin comprised of three layers of chromatophores (color pigment cells)—a bright yellow layer near the surface, under which is an orange-red layer and finally a dark base. Transformation from one color to another, which can take less than a second, is controlled by the nervous system. In just a few seconds, it can run a whole gamut of colors.

“The world’s oceans are filled with amazingly complex creatures, perhaps none more so than the cuttlefish. With green blood, three hearts, and able to change color in a flash, it sounds like a weird aliens movie creature.”  Paula Weston

Most spectacular is how cuttlefish rapidly can rapidly change colors so that their skin will actually pulse as if they are sending electrically charged waves of light and dark through their bodies, adjusting the rhythm from slow to fast to slow again. The same neurotransmitters that allow them to control their color and skin texture to blend with the bottom, also allow them to communicate, whether to attract a mate, warn off rival cuttlefish or even stage a performance to confuse their prey.

If you can imagine that cuttlefish are extraterrestrials who came to earth, then diving in Wakatobi, hovering weightless as you watch one of these strange creatures pulsate in other-worldly color patterns, might well be as close as you can ever come to visiting another planet!

Learn more about these masters of disguise by watching the PBS-NOVA video

Kings of Camouflage

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