Did you know an octopus can change color in a flash? It’s true! In this post, we are going to get into all of the weird and wonderful details behind their superpowered SKIN! Read on to discover how an octopus can change color in an instance, know exactly what color they need to be to become a perfect match to their environment, and why they go through all the trouble to change color in the first place!
When listing off octopus superpowers, where do we even begin?
They can squeeze their bodies through tight spaces, have panoramic vision, and are experts at camouflage and mimicry. Not bad considering they evolved from a snail!
Let’s not forget they are also incredibly intelligent.
Octopus, squids, AND cuttlefish can all change their skin color faster than it takes for you to blink.
It’s all thanks to thousands of chromatophores and an extensive neural network that makes them into underwater billboards!
Chromatophores are small pigment-containing cells that are controlled by an array of muscles and nerves. These tiny, elastic sacs of color can be stretched or tightened.
When a chromatophore is relaxed, the sac contracts and leaves an octopus looking white.
When muscles around a chromatophore tighten, the sac is pulled open, showing color which can be black, brown, orange, red, or yellow-hello 70’s vibes!
Imagine flexing your muscles and BAM-you have a whole new outfit on.
🐙 Fun Fact 🐙
Chromatophores are not exclusive to cephalopods! Chameleons, fish, and some reptiles have chromatophores; however, cephalopod chromatophores are the most impressive.
The speed at which they can change color and the way they use their skin for visual communication and camouflage is the most dynamic in the animal kingdom.
But wait! Color changing doesn’t stop with chromatophores. Octopuses (along with other cephalopods) have no subpar superpowers; so of course, they can display ALL colors.
That’s where the iridophores, leucophores, and photophores come into the picture.
Just below the layer of chromatophores lie iridophores which means “bearer of rainbows.”
Iridophores are stacks of thin cells that reflect light back at different wavelengths (and possibly different polarities!). This is how octopuses produce those shiny blue and green colors!
The Caribbean Reef Octopus (Octopus briareus) puts on a fantastic color display using its iridophores by reflecting a metallic-like blue-green color around its eye and in its webbing.
Like Cinderella’s dress!
Interestingly, the color that an iridophore reflects depends on the angle that it is seen.
An octopus’s third layer!
Leucophore (light-reflecting) cells are covered with tiny disco ball-like granules that take on whatever light shines upon them.
That means if you were to shine a blue light on an octopus, the leucophore skin layer would make them look blue!
Leucophores help octopuses camouflage by reflecting the light already in the environment. The amount of light that reaches the leucophores is controlled by the chromatophore and iridophore layers above them.
The fourth “phore” are tiny, light PRODUCING organs!
These specialized cells that create light allow an octopus to glow, which is known as bioluminescence. Unfortunately, not all cephalopods are lucky enough to possess photophores.
The Firefly Squid (Watasenia scintillans), the Strawberry Squid, and the Glowing Sucker Octopus (Stauroteuthis syrtensis) are two of these lucky creatures.
The Glowing Sucker Octopus can emit blue-green light from about 40 modified suckers!
WHY Is An Octopus Changing Its Skin Color?
Being a squishy treat in an ocean full of hungry animals with sharp teeth means you need to be able to protect yourself.
Best way to do that? Become one with the habitat!
Chromatophores, iridophores, and leucophores allow octopuses to blend into their environment in seconds. Rock, coral, seaweed, sand- you name it. An octopus can blend right in.
Without much energy, they can completely avoid detection and save their more costly forms of defense, like inking, for dire situations.
Beyond becoming an unmoving object in the ocean, cephalopods also use their color-shifting skin to:
- Display deimatic behavior
- Mimic other ocean creatures
How do cephalopods use color camoflouge to protect themselves?
Let’s take a look at the Blue-Ringed Octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.). BROs will flash iridescent blue rings against yellow skin to warn predators to stay away.
Squid and cuttlefish take color communication to a whole new level when mating. They can split their bodies in two, signaling to females on one side that they are ready to mate while on the other side flashing “get out of here” colors to other males.
The aptly named Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) is the reigning champion for mimicry behavior. Instead of blending in, it adopts the body coloration of different sea creatures within its habitat such as:
- Sea snakes
To really sell it, the Mimic Octopus also acts just like whatever sea creature it is mimicking!
How do octopuses know what texture they should turn into?
Within less than a second, an octopus’s eyes take in their surroundings. They relax or contract their chromatophores and have assumed their camouflage.
But, you can’t talk about octopus camouflage without also talking about papillae.
Papillae are small regions in the skin with a specialized network of muscle fibers and nerves that tighten or pull to create 3D skin. This is how an octopus changes the texture of its skin in conjunction with its color- I know, the superpowers are endless!
Octopuses can go from having smooth skin to having bumps and spikes all over their body as fast as they can change color.
🐙 Fun Fact 🐙
Squid don’t have papillae! Only octopus and cuttlefish have the power to get spiky and look like they are ready for a punk rock concert.
Since we know octopuses are crazy smart and that they can see their surroundings exactly as they are, it’s no wonder octopus can meld into another shape and color so expertly.
Have you ever seen an octopus changing color? Let us know in the comments down below!
If you want to educate yourself some more about all sorts of different cephalopods, take a look at our encyclopedia. Or, what we call it, our Octopedia!
Connect with other octopus lovers via the OctoNation Facebook group, OctopusFanClub.com! Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with the conservation, education, and ongoing research of cephalopods.
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- Do Octopuses Die After Giving Birth?
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Corinne is a biologist with 10 years of experience in the fields of marine and wildlife biology. She has a Master’s degree in marine science from the University of Auckland and throughout her career has worked on multiple international marine conservation projects as an environmental consultant. She is an avid scuba diver, underwater photographer, and loves to share random facts about sea creatures with anyone who will listen. Based in Japan, Corinne currently works in medical research and scientific freelance writing!