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Cuttlefish camouflage: more than meets the eye

According to previous research, cuttlefish transformation is a relatively simple cognitive process involving one of three body patterns to help the animals blend in with their background. Still, scientists have yet to explain how these stunning masters of disguise can express approximately 30 different body pattern components. 

Like other cephalopods (i.e., octopi), cuttlefish are able to camouflage themselves by using their brains to control chromatophores – special cells all over their body surface. A new study led by City University London has shown that European cuttlefish (sepia officinalis) camouflage may be more complex than previously thought. 

“To examine how cuttlefish deploy this vast potential, we recorded cuttlefish on seven experimental backgrounds, each designed to resemble a pattern component, and then compared their responses to predictions of two models of sensory control of component expression,” wrote the study authors.

The scientists observed and analyzed 15 European cuttlefish and found that the patterns displayed by cuttlefish could only be explained by the involvement of more than one distinct neural system. These systems are activated selectively and process features from the cuttlefish’s immediate environment and the overall background, which allow the cuttlefish to camouflage themselves on the ocean floor. 

“The cuttlefish provides a fascinating window into perceptual processing of such an alien species by expressing its perception of the surroundings on the dynamic canvas of its skin surface,” said study co-author Professor Christopher Tyler.

The research supports the findings of a previous study, which suggests that cuttlefish have the cognitive ability to process specific and background features. Furthermore, the results support another model suggesting that cuttlefish only employ these cognitive skills when they deem them necessary to improve their camouflage. 

“The findings also lay the groundwork for further study to investigate which specific aspects of the patterned features used here are responsible for activating distinct groups of body components in cuttlefish, and indeed, whether these artificial visual cues are reflective of what is encountered in the animal’s natural environment,” concluded Professor Tyler. 

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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