Protean Behavior: Unpredictability Is The Name Of The Escape Game

Cephalopods have a slew of defense mechanisms to detect, evade, confuse, and deter predators. It only makes sense that they would need multiple defenses being one of the squishiest and protein-rich species in the ocean. No tough skin to bite through and no hard shell to crack open. Obviously, octopuses don’t want to end up as dinner. So, to help avoid this fate, they use expert camouflage, release clouds of ink, make quick escapes, and all sorts of other forms of trickery! One such trickster behavior is known as protean behavior. Read on to find out all about it!  

Attack Not Feeling It GIF by OctoNation - Find & Share on GIPHY

What Is Protean Behavior?

Protean behavior is when an animal acts unpredictably to prevent a predator from anticipating its future position or actions. 

On land, animals frequently flee in an irregular manner, like a rabbit running away in a zig-zagging pattern. Some animals, like butterflies, go the extra mile and incorporate protean behavior into their day-to-day routine resulting in a loopy, spinney, and overall spathic flying pattern. 

If you’ve ever chased a cockroach around your house as you try and kill it, you have witnessed protean behavior in action! You never know which way that bug is going to go.

Can Humans Show Protean Behavior?

As humans, we also exhibit protean behavior, sometimes intentionally or unintentionally.

Someone suddenly breaking down crying or flying into a rage usually makes the people around them feel a bit off-kilter and could change how they were treating you. Military strategists, sports coaches, and game theorists all partake in well thought out protean behavior.

How to stop the enemy, rival team, or match opponent from predicting and preparing their next move? Randomness! 

Underwater, this kind of unpredictable behavior has been observed in Yellow-Spotted Pufferfish (Torquigener flavimaculosus) who exhibit erratic zigzag swimming when trying to evade predation. 

Camouflaging Cuttlefish in Australia!

Rate this camouflage from 1-10!🎥: Maeve Plouffe🍃 Watch as this cuttlefish moves back and forth in the water column to mimic the movement, coloration, and texture of the leaves.👾 ⁣Cuttlefish have the highest DPI of any cephalopod. Which means they have more chromatophores per square inch on their skin than ANY squid or octopus. It’s almost like having a TV screen as skin! 🤯⁣ ⁣⁣🔄 The Cuttlefish has a fin around their body resembling a short, color-changing skirt. Their muscular fin undulates & can maneuver the cuttlefish in nearly any direction: backward, forward, even in circles.💨 When needing to make a quick getaway, cuttlefish morph their tentacles, arms, & body into a sleek looking car-shape and use jet-propulsion to blast away.⁣⁣↕️ Another quick fact while we have your attention, Cuttlefish have the CraZy ability to control their buoyancy by adjusting the levels of gas in their cuttlebone, a porous internal shell- that's how they float so effortlessly in the water. ⁣Caption from the From the videographer @maeveplouffe“Cephalopod camouflage never ceases to amaze me! 😍Cephalopods have the remarkable ability to alter both the colour and texture of their skin to blend seamlessly with their surrounding habitat. Under the skin, chromatophores contain pigment sacs, while iridophores and leucophores reflect and scatter light. The skin also has a muscular-hydrostatic system which raises papillae to make it appear bumpy or textured. Perhaps even more amazing is how quickly this all takes place. I managed to capture the exact moment that this cuttlefish morphed from camouflaging against seagrass, to being smooth and streamlined. I love how you can see all of these mechanisms interact to completely transform the animal. 🌊” ⁣🤔 Which fact did you find the most surprising Nation? Let us know below! ⁣😍 We hope you have a new appreciation for these squishy lightening rods ⁣#OctoNation #Scuba #cephalopod #discoverocean #diving #NationalGeographic #AnimalPlanet #oceanconservation #NatGeoWild #theellenshow #tidepools #blueplanet #uwphotography #underwaterphotography #UWMacro #divinglife #MissionBlue #hopespots #cuttlefish #australia

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Monday, October 5, 2020
By: Maeve Plouffe

🐙 Octopus Fun Fact

Cephalopod behavior has been studied since the 1950s; however, researchers only recently started looking into their protean behaviors.

Why Is It Called ‘Protean’ Behavior?

Back in 1970, Humphries and Driver were the first to research and publish about adaptively unpredictable behavior. They coined the term protean behavior after the mythical Greek river-god Proteus, a.k.a. Old Man of the Sea, who was able to change shape and form. 

He was the old shepherd of Poseidon’s sea creatures who possessed the gift of prophecy but refused to share what he knew with anyone. He would change his shape to escape anyone wanting information from him. 

The only way to get an answer was to catch him during his midday nap and then hold onto him while he attempted to shapeshift till he eventually revealed what he knew.

A Day Octopus (Octopus cyanea) retreating in one of it’s infinite shapes/color patterns
By: Lawrence Scheele

Which Escape Trick To Choose? Cephalopods Have A Bunch Of Them!

An octopus’s first line of defense is avoiding being seen at all, which they are particularly good at! They spend ample time in their dens, and when they come out, they can match their surroundings in a split second. 

If this first line of defense fails, it’s time to activate their arsenal of secondary defenses! This is where deimatic behavior (startling actions to make a predator hesitate), aposematic behavior (warning coloration displays), and ultimately protean behavior come into play. 

After all, there comes the moment of truth to decide whether to fight back or flee.

Types Of Protean Behaviors Octopuses Display

Researchers have described protean behavior as behavioral anarchy (I do what I want to when I want to, and you won’t know what’s happening.)! 

Protean behavior can come in many forms to confuse their predators:

  • “Blanch-ink-jet” maneuver 
  • Rapid changes in appearance, like pattern flashing or deflective marks
  • Unpredictable speeds (slowing down, going fast), like erratic jetting
  • Releasing clouds of ink

⚡️Why is this octopus flashing?👇⁣In situations where an octopus is attempting to defend itself, it will either shoot ink, jet away, or display deimatic behavior. ⁣⁣Deimatic behavior attempts to frighten predators and is commonly used by animals that lack a strong defense. ⁣⁣In this instance the octopus is hoping it can either scare off or momentarily distract the camera person. ⁣⁣When you see these color displays, now you can explain to your friends what’s going on! ⁣⁣Deimatic is a Greek word that means “to frighten”⁣⁣🎥 video by @angiebiggs12 ⁣

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Saturday, October 6, 2018
By: Angie Biggs

🐙 Octopus Fun Fact

When threatened, octopus and cuttlefish can use their fast-acting chromatophores to produce color convulsions. A predator expects to see one thing but then gets thrown off when multiple images are flashed in its face. 

Cuttlefish can make such wild and quick color displays on their bodies that scientists hypothesize that they are able to hypnotize prey items.

Strobing Cuttlefish Mesmerizing Prey: BBC America
cuttlefish ink cloud
Ink Cloud From A Cuttlefish By: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

The Constant Biological Arms Race Between Predators and Prey

Why go through all this trouble? Why would an animal need to have so many tricks up its sleeve? Because predators evolve to track and predict the movements of their prey! 

If a prey does something unexpected, predators will have a harder time catching them. 

Let’s say you’re a flounder and you get the hankering for a Longfin Squid. As the flounder, who’s been chasing around squid for a while now, you know a Longfin Squid will try and escape backward via jet propulsion

The squid also knows you know this. 

So, instead of just scooting away, it blasts out a cloud of ink. The flounder is then like wait, woah… what is this? What am I looking at? Is the squid in the ink? Is the ink the squid? 

And there you have it folks: unpredictability and a successful squid escape!

Planctoteuthis squid – the squid with the feather tail!

This squid needs a nickname!🎥:Via Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)The function of this squid’s feathery tail that looks like a straight up TV antenna is still unknown— although Zoologist Mike Vecchione suggested that it could be a form of protective mimicry.🦑💨 Speaking of protection— if you watch till the end of this clip you can see this squid shoot a smaller, thick cloud of ink paired with mucus— this allows the ink to hold it’s shape for a longer period of time which fools predators momentarily as the squid jets away!🥰can we just take a second to admire how incredible the ocean Is? Wowza! 🌊 Here is what Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) said:“There's still so much we don't know about deep-sea cephalopods like this Planctoteuthis squid and its beautifully ornate tail. ⁠⁠MBARI's remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have encountered the relatively rare deep-sea squid Planctoteuthis oligobessa fewer than 20 times in over 30 years.This species' long, decorative tail remained unknown until MBARI ROVs captured the first images of the animal out in the wild.In trawl nets, many delicate deep-sea animals are damaged, so we often don't get the whole picture until we can take ROVs equipped with cameras into their environment.Other squids in the family Chiroteuthidae also have ornate tails that they use for various reasons, like imitating siphonophores.As we continue to dive into the depths of our ocean, MBARI researchers are discovering more about the species that live in this vast, mysterious habitat.”🎉Give it up for Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) 👏 🐙

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Sunday, October 11, 2020
By: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

Using Ink Plumes To Escape

A study looking at different predator reactions on a Longfin Squid found ink plumes to be a handy protean behavior! Discovered by science!

Ink caused flounders to misdirect their attacks 51% of the time to the ink cloud rather than the squid. NOT TODAY FLOUNDER!

🐙 Octopus Fun Fact

Inking as a defense can also be categorized as deimatic behavior since it additionally startles predators. Both behaviors are meant to confuse and disorient their predator and slow their reaction time. These behaviors are still considered secondary defense tactics since fleeing had the best overall survival rate for the squid. 

Interestingly, squid varied their tactics depending on which predator it encountered!

3 vs 1: Who’s Coming Out On Top?

In a related study, cuttlefish were pitted against Bluefish, Summer Flounder, and Black Seabass. These crafty cuttlefish showed 3 primary and 15 secondary defense behaviors. This clearly shows that cephalopods have the intelligence to determine which mix of defenses would work best on different types of predators. 

Pretty incredible for an animal without a backbone! Even hatchling cuttlefish who had never encountered a predator were able to pull out their bag of defensive tricks!

Day Octopus GIF by OctoNation® The Largest Octopus Fan Club! - Find & Share on GIPHY
Protean / Unpredictable Behavior: Jack Satriadi

Protean Behavior: So Many Tricks, So Little Time!

Essentially, the more ways you have to escape a predator, the higher chance you will live to see another day. Complex, unpredictable escape maneuvers are the name of the survival game when you’re a cephalopod.

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,! 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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