Decoding the Cuttlefish: Unraveling the Enigma of Rapid Camouflage

New tools bring scientists closer to understanding the mechanisms behind how color-blind cuttlefish execute their kaleidoscopic patterns

November 30, 2023

A recent article published in Nature explores the intricacies of cuttlefish camouflage, revealing the fascinating mechanisms that govern their rapid and intricate skin pattern transformations. The article details the latest findings and innovative tools presented at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) 2023 meeting in Washington DC, shedding light on the neural and genetic complexities that contribute to one of the most remarkable displays of camouflage in the animal kingdom.

Researchers, led by neuroscientist Gilles Laurent of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, used high-resolution video to observe individual cuttlefish skin cells in action. This approach allows scientists to study the performance of the cuttlefish's brain without directly interfering with neural processes, providing a unique perspective on the animal's camouflage abilities. The cuttlefish's skin, which contains millions of cells called chromatophores that contain pigments of different colors, undergoes shape changes through muscle contractions. This modulation of pigment display creates a diverse array of colors, patterns, and textures, allowing the cuttlefish to quickly and seamlessly adapt its appearance. In a breakthrough discovery reported here in June, Laurent's team found that cuttlefish undergo multiple color changes before settling on a pattern that matches their surroundings, employing a trial-and-error approach rather than a predetermined strategy.

One goal of the research is to manipulate cuttlefish genes. Molecular biologist Tessa Montague and her team at Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute are making progress in this area, having successfully edited the genome of miniature cuttlefish embryos. Although challenges remain in raising them to adulthood, Montague plans to introduce a gene that produces a fluorescent protein that will allow visualization of specific neurons and activation patterns associated with skin color changes. To further study these fascinating creatures, Montague's team has developed innovative tools, including a tank surrounded by e-ink screens programmed with patterns. This allows them to systematically observe the squid's responses to different environments without disturbing their natural behavior.

Beyond camouflage, researchers are exploring how cuttlefish use their skin color as a means of communication. Mysterious color displays such as the "wave," in which colors ripple across the squid's body, intrigue scientists who are eager to uncover their purpose.
The study of cuttlefish also sheds light on the evolution of sleep. Similar to octopuses, cuttlefish exhibit periods of "active sleep," during which their skin rapidly flashes different colors. Scientists speculate that these color displays may provide clues to the creatures' dreams and social interactions.

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