Camouflaged: Finding cephalopods

Written by: Irene Park

Edited by: Ada Hagan, Alisha John, Bryan Moyers, Kevin Boehnke

When I was watching Finding Dory, one character caught my eye: Hank the octopus (or septopus since he’s missing a tentacle). Throughout the movie, Hank uses his camouflage ability to blend into his surroundings, a very useful skill for Dory’s quest to reunite with her family without getting noticed by humans.  

I could not help but think how helpful Hank’s camouflage ability would be for different professions: hunters, nature photographers, and perhaps even people in the military. Unsurprisingly, researchers are already taking notes from cephalopods — which include octopuses like Hank, as well as squids and cuttlefishes — to develop better camouflage technology.

In the wild, this unique camouflaging ability not only allows cephalopods to hide from predators, but also helps them hunt for food, ward off potential threats, and communicate with other cephalopods.

But what does the camouflaging actually look like? Here’s a short video showing an octopus’s impressive camouflaging skills: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2UeR2pvoMA.

(WARNING: Falling into a YouTube hole of watching one cephalopod video after another will happen)

How do cephalopods camouflage so effectively?

Camouflaging cephalopods have thousands of pigmented cells called chromatophores beneath their skin. These cells have elastic sacs that are full of black, brown, orange, red, or yellow pigments. Chromatophores are connected to the animals’ muscles, which contract or expand the pigment sacs to create complex, colorful patterns on their skin.

370px-chromatophores
Chromatophores on squid skin. Image source.

The chromatophore cells are also connected to the nervous system. The cephalopods’ keen eyesight helps the animals detect the color and patterns of their surroundings, adjust their own skin patterns and colors, and blend in.

Some cephalopods can also control the size of their skin projections, called papillae, to recreate the texture of their surroundings. This ability to add a third dimension to their camouflage is made possible by muscular hydrostats—biological structures mainly composed of muscle with little or no skeletal support.

Check out a close-up video of an octopus’s papillae: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWxr8oIkOdU

Muscular hydrostats can easily change shape to bend, extend, twist, or even grip, allowing the cephalopods to freely mimic the environment’s texture (or escape through tiny holes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6L82iJ_NTI). Some other examples of muscular hydrostats are human tongues and elephant trunks.

What has cephalopod study inspired?

Dr. Alon Gorodetsky, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, studies proteins found in cephalopod skin for stealth applications. Drawing inspiration from the animals, Gorodetsky and his colleagues developed stickers that can disguise objects from infrared thermal imaging. This represents a big step forward in camouflage technology since infrared thermal imaging is commonly used to visualize warm bodies in the dark.

Gorodetsky’s team is not the only one that drew inspiration from the cephalopods’ stealthy ways. A team from MIT and Duke University developed a material that can change its color, fluorescence, and texture on demand by a remote control. Dr. Xuanhe Zhao, the senior author on the study, said such material could be extremely useful in military camouflaging because the current camouflage is static, so the patterns and colors might be effective in one environment but not in another.

“The U.S. military spends millions developing different kinds of camouflage patterns, but they are all static,” Zhao told MIT News. “Modern warfare requires troops to deploy in many different environments during single missions. This system could potentially allow dynamic camouflage in different environments.”

While this technology is far from being ready for use today, perhaps people will one day be able to match some of the camouflaging stunts Hank pulled off in Finding Dory. In the meantime, learn more about the amazing cephalopods from Science Friday: http://www.sciencefriday.com/spotlights/cephalopod-week/.

*An earlier version of this post was published here.

**Featured Image: A bobtail squid. Source.

About the author

ireneSo Hae (Irene) Park is a fourth-year Human Genetics PhD student at the University of Michigan Medical School and the Science Column Editor (keep your eye out for more info about our upcoming weekly column in The Michigan Daily). Before attending UMich, she received her BA in Biological Sciences and Philosophy at Cornell University. Now under the joint supervision of Drs. Thomas Wilson and Thomas Glover, Irene is investigating what causes genome instability—an accumulation ofmutations in the cells—and how it can be avoided. Genome instability is commonly seen in many human diseases, like cancer. When she is not working during the wee hours in her laboratory or writing about the latest cool topics in science and medicine in The Michigan Daily or HIPPO Reads, Irene likes to watch movies, watch The Food Network, collect anything cute, learn how to make different types of coffee drinks, listen to music, travel, and read. Follow her on Twitter (@S_Park89).

Read all posts by Irene here.

3 thoughts on “Camouflaged: Finding cephalopods”

  1. I love thinking about the applications of this. As a writer, I can see the use of this in a Sci-Fi movie or book. To see it happen in real life would be so cool! Maybe some day? I can’t even fathom how you would transfer the muscular hydrostats to fabric and how that would work. I’ll leave it to the scientists! Well-written article, Irene. Thanks.

    Like

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