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The Fantastic Phore: Cephalopods Color-Changing Abilities!

If you ever wondered what (or who) was the culprit behind cephalopods being able to change the color of their skin… you’ve found them. Meet the Fantastic Phore- chromatophore, iridophores, leucophores, and photophores!

Cephalopod skin is the kind of thing you read about in science fiction books. It would be completely unbelievable if they weren’t showing it off any chance they got! 

Want me to look like this rock? Done! 

Want me to shimmer and dazzle you with fabulous iridescent blues and greens? No problem!

Want me to glow, so you can see me in the dark? Let’s go! 

Of course, all this color-changing has important purposes and is used for either camouflaging or communicating.

Color Changing Octopus Is Dreaming?

💤 Color-Changing octopus wakes up from dreaming 😍 📚: “This video captures a Caribbean two-spot octopus snoozing 🐙💤 Researchers have discovered that octopuses experience something similar to REM sleep, which is when humans dream. Is this octopus dreaming? We don’t know yet – this is a great example of exciting opportunities in invertebrate research, and why it’s essential to support it!”-Katrina Loewy 🎥: Filmed by Rebecca Otey, Science & Conservation Intern, at Butterfly Pavilion in October 2017

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Friday, February 9, 2018
Filmed by Rebecca Otey, Science & Conservation Intern, at Butterfly Pavilion in October 2017

Meet The Fantastic Phore!

Let’s take a journey and meet all of the phores! Discover how chromatophores, leucophores, iridophores, and photophores work to make cephalopods the squishy masterpieces we all love so much!

Squid Skin by Robert Stansfield

Chromatophores

If you’ve heard of any of the Fantastic Phores, it’s probably been chromatophores, the most renowned of the 4 phores!

Chromatophores

The color cells that almost all cephalopods are born with can be immediately used to change their color when they pop out of their egg sac.

Baby Octopus GIF by OctoNation - Find & Share on GIPHY

Chromatophores are small pigment-containing cells that PRODUCE COLOR and make up the top layer of a cephalopod’s skin.

These tiny, elastic sacs of color can be stretched or tightened! They are controlled by an array of muscles and nerves.

When a chromatophore is relaxed, the sac contracts so only the tiniest spot of color shows leaving a cephalopod looking white.

When muscles around a chromatophore tighten, the sac is pulled open showing colors like black, brown, orange, red, or yellow. 

Basically, all a cephalopod must do is think about a new skin color and they are already wearing it! 

“Passing Waves” Day Octopus (Octopus Cyanea) via: Liquid Cosmos Divers

This rapidly changing body coloration and patterns through voluntary control of chromatophores are called metachrosis.

The speed at which cephalopods can change color and the way they use their skin for visual communication and camouflage are some of the most dynamic in the animal kingdom.

Note: Check out this blog post where we showcase Sujay Sanan’s art drawing where he captures the Common Octopus in metachrosis.  

By: Sujay Sanan

Cephalopods use their chromatophores to effortlessly blend into their environment faster than you can blink. A great way to avoid being eaten is being able to look almost identical to your surroundings.

Predators will pass right on by completely unaware that they missed a potential meal.  

Note: Be sure to check out our blog post to find out more about the ingenious ways octopuses use their skin color-changing superpowers. 

🐙 Fun Fact 🐙

The Giant Australian Cuttlefish has the highest dots per inch (DPI) of any cephalopod. This 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!  

You would think chromatophores would suffice to allow these animals to blend into their environment, but I think we all know by now that cephalopods are super extra.

So naturally, this is only the beginning.

Giant Australian Cuttlefish By: Lawrence Scheele

Iridophores

Next up and nestled just below the skin layer of chromatophores lie the cephalopod’s iridophores! 

Meaning “bearer of rainbows”, iridophores work a little differently than chromatophores. These cells are stacks of thin plates packed with a protein called reflectin. This helps REFLECT LIGHT back at different wavelengths (and possibly different polarities!). 

This is how cephalopods produce those kaleidoscopic metallic-like greens, blues, golds, and silvers.

Interestingly, the color that an iridophore reflects depends on the angle that it is seen from! 

Which Cuttlefish fact surprises you?🎥 Fins & Photography1️⃣Giant Australian Cuttlefish can weigh as much as 3 gallons of water ~23 pounds (10.5kg)2️⃣ Stack 5 toilet paper rolls on top of each other… that’s how long a giant cuttlefish can get! They grow up to 60cm long! (23.62in) 🧻🧻🧻🧻🧻3️⃣ W-shaped-pupils allow cuttlefish a wider horizontal range (panoramic vision), allowing them to squint their pupil down the middle and see directly behind themselves — you can’t sneak up on a cuttlefish 😏 bet!4️⃣ Cuttlefish aren’t fish- they’re mollusks that have 3 hearts & blue-green blood! Some aquariums have reflected this on their exhibits by putting “cuttles"5️⃣ During mating season males outnumber females 11 to 1! In fact, because competition is so tough, male cuttlefish will display female color patterns & switch at the last minute to mate6️⃣ Giant cuttlefish have a lifespan of 1-2 years7️⃣ Cuttlefish bones are often found washed up on beaches indicating that breeding season is over – cuttlebones are commonly used as calcium rich dietary supplements for birds. 🐦8️⃣ Cuttlefish have a higher skin resolution than an iPhone X (~500DPI) Cuttlefish have the highest DPI of any cephalopod. That is to say: they have more chromatophores per square inch of their skin than any squid or octopus!🏆 BONUS FACT 9️⃣ – cuz if you’re still reading, you’re obviously geeking out!🔂 Repeat after us— Octopus don’t have TENTACLES. They have 8 arms.🐙 Cuttlefish on the other tentacle have 8 arms & two feeding tentacles that blast out to capture prey faster than we humans blink—then the tentacles retract into sockets beside each eye!👽🤯 Which fact number below do you find most interesting?🤔 Do you know any other Cuttle facts?🌈👾 if ya read this far! — Comment squishy rainbow puppy#OctoNation #underwatervideo #cephalopod #cuttlefish #southaustralia #scubadiving #freediving #girlsthatscuba #girlsthatfreedive #natgeo #bbcearth #abcmyvideo #paditv #magicalmoments #whyallatourism #freediverlife #freedivingphotos #underwater #savetheocean #explore #adventure #australia #greatbarrierreef #nationalgeographic

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Sunday, June 13, 2021

Unlike the rapid changes seen in chromatophores, the alteration in iridophores moves slower. This requires physiological changes cycling through the rainbow from red to orange to yellow to green to blue over a period of seconds to a minute. 

While chromatophores are directly under neuromuscular (nervous system + muscles) control, iridophores are thought to be controlled by a neurohormone (nervous system + hormones).

This results in this slight color-changing time lag!

Giant Australian Cuttlefish By: Lawrence Scheele

🐙 Fun Fact 🐙

The Caribbean Reef Octopus (Octopus briareus) can make itself ready for a fancy party in no time by using its iridophores to turn its body a metallic blue-green topping off its stellar look with silver around its eye.

Cuttlefish and squid also possess iridophores making it a whole shimmery cephalopod party!

More Caribbean Reef Magic! 🐙✨ 🎥: @Mr.SeaOctopus😎 At this point, there is no doubt that octopuses are the smartest invertebrates in the ocean! 💪🐙 🧠 The Caribbean Reef Octopus uses long & short term memory to learn from its experiences and become the master of its domain!🔍 While this stealthy species forages across the reef, it learns where all the good food spots are located. 🗺 It will return to places of high prey density to hunt, showing that this octopus processes information, forms memories, and has analyzed that information for its benefit!🌮 Kind of like having the best taco of your life and committing the location to memory so you know exactly where to return whenever that taco craving strikes. IYKYK! (Yes, we’re based outta Austin Texas lol) 🎶: Ainsworth the Musician

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Saturday, January 22, 2022

Leucophores

The third layer! 

These are also LIGHT REFLECTING cells, but leucophores are responsible for making a cephalopod appear white. These cells are covered in tiny disco ball-like granules which scatter light in all directions. 

This provides cephalopods with a luminous and contrasting backdrop on which the chromatophores and iridophores can use as a blank canvas! 

The amount of light that reaches the leucophores is controlled by the two -phore layers above them (iridophores and chromatophores).

OctoPNG

👽 Take me to your leader 👽 ⁣⁣⚠️ Within chromatophore cells, there are thousands of tiny sacs of color changing pigments. Chromatophores control orange and darker color changes.⁣⁣⁣⁣🌘 When an octopus decides to shift to a darker color, the brown sacs stretch out to the surface, making that color dominant. ⁣⁣⁣⁣✨ Iridophores work differently. They have the ability to reflect back different waves of light. ⁣⁣⁣⁣Iridophores are found under the chromatophores and are responsible for producing the metallic looking greens, blues, and golds seen in some species, as well as the silver shimmery color around their eyes ⛔️⛔️ ⁣⁣⁣⁣🌈 Leucophores are reflectors that produce whiteness in cephalopods containing the high-refractive-index protein reflectin. Leucophores reflect whatever colors are in the available light field e.g. white in white light, red in red light⁣⁣⁣⁣💡 Combine this with an octopuses photophores that produce bioluminescence (glowing skin) & you’ve got yourself some dynamic color changing skin! 🙌🏻❤️🐙😍⁣⁣The common reef octopus was found in Papua New Guinea, and was nice enough to allow OceanShutter to record this moment!

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Tuesday, March 5, 2019
Common Reef Octopus by OceanShutter

Leucophores are also capable of taking on whatever light shines upon them. If you were to shine a blue light on an octopus, the leucophore skin layer would make them look blue! 

Leucophores also help octopuses camouflage by reflecting the light already in the environment.

The Day Octopus (Octopus cyanea) commands its light-reflecting leucophores to expertly camouflage into their complex, shallow water habitats such as coral reefs. It can shift body colors well over 100 times over the course of a few hours.

Octopus Cyanea aka, the Day octopus can change colors faster than you can blink!

Roll Call: Where in the world do ya live?🎥: Fins & Photography ➡️ Octopus Cyanea or Day Octopus is diurnal, meaning they are awake and active during the day. As a result, their ability to change color & texture is a mega superpower of theirs! I mean, just watch! One day octopus was observed changing patterns over 1,000 times over a 7 hour period. The ability to change texture allows them to break up their usual body shape while millions of color changing cells work on blending the octopus into their environments! Whatever it takes to protect their squishy vulnerable bodies! If ya read this far— here is a bonus fact — octopuses can change colors in one fifth of a second!!! That’s faster than we can humanly blink! Comment 😉🐙 below

Posted by Octonation – The Largest Octopus Fan Club on Tuesday, April 13, 2021

🐙 Fun Fact 🐙

Most squids don’t have leucophores except for the Reef Squid Genus (Sepioteuthis).

The Caribbean Reef Squid (Sepiothruthis sepioidea) can split their bodies in half (color-wise!) using their leucophores. They do this in combination with the other two phore layers to produce different patterns on different sides of their bodies AT THE SAME TIME! 

Photophores

Quick recap: Cephalopods have color-filled skin (chromatophores), two layers of light reflecting skin (iridophores and leucophores), which brings us to our fourth “phore”…

Photophores! Tiny, LIGHT PRODUCING organs. 

By: Nautilus Live

These specialized organs consist of light-producing cells called photocytes that create light. This allows a cephalopod to turn into its very own night light and glow in the dark.

This ability to produce light is known as bioluminescence

Closeup of Strawberry Squid Via AUT Lab for Cephalopod Ecology and Systematics

Unfortunately, not all cephalopods are lucky enough to possess photophores! 

The Firefly Squid (Watasenia scintillans) and the Glowing Sucker Octopus (Stauroteuthis syrtensis) are a few of these lucky creatures.

Firefly Squids light up the waters of Toyama Bay in Japan with an eerie blue glow during the spring.

The Glowing Sucker Octopus have arms that look like little strings of twinkly Christmas lights!

Glowing Sucker Octopus

Why don’t all cephalopods have photophores? 

Probably because they don’t really need them. 

Photophores are mostly found in mid to deep water cephalopods and are often absent in shallow-water species.

Because they live in a pitch-black environment, it’s important for these cephalopods to make their own light! 

Deep-Sea Piglet Squid With Photophores By: Mike Schaat

For example, the Strawberry Squid (Histioteuthis heteropsis) has complex photophores that they use for communication, mating, luring in prey, and avoiding predators.

🐙 Fun Fact 🐙

There are different types of photophores!

The Bobtail Squid also produces light, but they do this with the help of their symbiotic bioluminescent bacteria living in their light organ!

They wear these glowing bacteria on their bellies. So that when they are seen from below, they blend into the lighter, moonlit surface above them.

This type of camouflage is called counter-illumination!

The Fantastic Phore Strike Again! 

All these phores work together like a color-producing orchestra with octopus, squid, and cuttlefish brains as the almighty conductors.

Cephalopod skin is essentially a living, breathing artistic masterpiece with every photograph and video captured being one of a kind.

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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