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The "Hidden" Secrets of the Ocean's Best Camouflagers

Many animals have the ability to camouflage, but when it comes to invisibility through disguise, cephalopods are the guys you want at your masquerade party.


There are many animals with the ability to camouflage, but when it comes to near invisibility through disguise there's no doubt that cephalopods are the guys you want at your masquerade party.

Cephalopods, or marine mollusks with prominent heads and long arms, are comprised of octopuses, squid, nautilus, and cuttlefish. Recognized for their jet propulsion capabilities and their ink squirting, biologist categorize cephalopods as the most intelligent marine invertebrates with highly evolved brains, eyes, nerves, and skin.

But what's truly amazing about these creatures is their skin. Their skin is covered with thousands of organs called chromatophores that are surrounded by muscles. The chromatophores are full of red, brown, yellow, black, and orange pigment that expands and contracts when the animal constricts or stretches the organ—which allows the animal to change it’s hue. Also, light reflecting cells known as iridophores allow the animal to literally meld into its surroundings.

Here are some chromatophores in action:

However, color changing organs and light reflecting cells are just some of the weapons in a cephalopod’s cloaking arsenal. They can also alter the texture of their skin to match that of their surroundings by raising external papillae in order to better conceal themselves from predators, as most of the large ocean predators will feed upon cephalopods. Cephalopods are the only living animal capable of changing the texture of their skin within seconds for camouflage (something that engineers have been struggling to replicate with synthetic material).

Cephalopods come in various sizes and are found throughout the ocean and at all depths. Those who live in shallow environments have rapid adaptive camouflage, meaning they have evolved to change color and texture very quickly in order to protect themselves from becoming someone’s lunch.

Cephalopods pattern their skin to best match their environment in order to blend in seamlessly. According to Hanlon, there are only three types of patterns that cephalopods utilize in order to integrate into their surroundings.

Cuttlefish changing pattern:

If color, texture, and pattern are not enough, the cephalopods also use position in order to camouflage. They situate themselves in the best way possible to match the background of where they are hiding.

The impressive camouflaging techniques of cephalopods have inspired engineers in a myriad of ways, who have wanted to reproduce this animal’s natural technology in real world ways. Most recently, engineers have created on demand fluorescent patterning – an electro-mechano-chemically responsive elastomer system that can change fluorescence and texture via remote control.

With color, pattern, texture, and shape rapidly altered by a cephalopod for camouflage purposes, there is no better organism to study when it comes to near invisibility. When the military may eventually use a technology inspired by cephalopods – well, we’d thank them . . . if we could find them.

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Illustration by Fabio Manucci

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