This cuttlefish is flamboyant on special occasions only!

August 19, 2020

WOODS HOLE, Mass. - The flashy Flamboyant Cuttlefish is among the most famous of the cephalopods (octopus, squid, and cuttlefish) - but it is widely misunderstood by its legions of fans.

A new paper from the
"This animal is well known in the Internet community, has been on TV many times, and is popular in public aquariums," Hanlon says. "In almost all cases, [its skin] is showing this brilliantly colorful flamboyant display."

But Hanlon's field studies in Indonesia, reported here, tell a different and richer story. "It turns out in nature, flamboyant cuttlefish are camouflaged nearly all of the time. They are nearly impossible to find," he says. In the blink of an eye, they can switch from some of "best camouflage known in the cephalopods" to their dazzling flamboyant display. But they only use this display on certain occasions: For elaborate male courtship rituals; or when males are fighting over a female; or to flash briefly at a threatening object when it approaches too close, presumably to scare it away.

"The flamboyant display is common when a diver approaches close enough to photograph, which is why the public may think this species always looks so colorful," Hanlon says. "But it is rare to see this species in flamboyant display in the wild."

A Flamboyant Courtship

The courtship displays by male flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) are among the most elaborate of all cephalopods! This study reveals new observations about the sex life of the flamboyant cuttlefish -- from courtship to mating to egg laying - gleaned from hours of video taken during many SCUBA dives in Indonesia with teams of volunteers.

Males, which tend to be significantly smaller than females, approach and court a camouflaged female with flamboyant displays and elaborate rituals, which include "waves" (rapidly waving three pairs of arms while displaying "passing cloud") and "kisses" (male darts forward and briefly, gently touches his arms to hers).

Females generally ignore males while they are courting; they stay camouflaged and motionless or just keep on foraging and hunting. Male courtship goes on non-stop for prolonged periods (6 to 52 minutes observed in this study).

In three observations, two males competed simultaneously for a female. Males can display flamboyant courtship signaling on one side of the body while flashing white (signaling aggression) on the other side toward the rival male.

In one case, male competition ended abruptly when one of the males, while facing the female and waving and kissing, backed into a camouflaged scorpionfish and was eaten! "Sex can have a real cost," Hanlon notes.

Females were choosy and often rejected courting males. Female receptivity was obvious when she widely spread her first three pairs of arms (while standing on the fourth pair of arms). The male would then swim within the arm crown and quickly deposit spermatophores in the buccal region where the seminal receptacle is located. Average duration of mating was only 2.89 seconds.

After fertilization, the successful male guarded the female for a while but not, curiously, up to egg laying, as is common with other cuttlefish. When another male was present, mate guarding was aggressive.

The female lays her eggs while camouflaged and staying still. She then pushes her eggs under a coconut shell and affixes them to the inside of the shell. When the hatchlings exit the egg case and jet away, they are fully formed and capable of camouflage and signaling.

Flamboyance for Secondary Defense

The primary mode of defense for both male and female Metasepia pfefferi is camouflage, and they remain camouflaged almost all the time. If a predator or threatening object (such as a diver) comes too close, though, the cuttlefish will flash the flamboyant display - switching from camouflaged to flamboyant in 700 milliseconds!

Elaborate Dynamic Signaling Rivaling That of Any Vertebrate

The vibrant colors (white, yellow, red and brown) of the flamboyant display are combined with apparent "waves" of dark brown color that produce a dazzling and dizzying kaleidoscope of motion, color, and patterning. The fast neural control of many thousands of chromatophore organs in the skin enable this unique signaling capability - all turned on or off in less than a second, and changed depending on the behavioral context of the courtship, or in the case of defense, the fish predators that discover them.

"Birds are renowned for highly evolved visual displays that depend partly on dramatic postural changes (with wings of different color and pattern, in particular), yet this invertebrate cuttlefish species has evolved equally dramatic and complex displays mainly with its skin coloration," Hanlon says.
Hanlon is a senior scientist in the MBL's Eugene Bell Center for Regenerative Biology and Tissue Engineering.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery - exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the

Marine Biological Laboratory

Related Squid Articles from Brightsurf:

Bacteria convince their squid host to create a less hostile work environment
Bacteria living symbiotically within the Hawaiian bobtail squid can direct the host squid to change its normal gene-expression program to make a more inviting home, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Hawai'i.

Squid jet propulsion can enhance design of underwater robots, vehicles
Squids use a form of jet propulsion that is not well understood, especially when it comes to their hydrodynamics under turbulent flow conditions.

Immune protein orchestrates daily rhythm of squid-bacteria symbiotic relationship
New research led by University of Hawai'i at Mānoa scientists revealed that, in the mutually beneficial relationship between with the Hawaiian bobtail squid and the luminescent bacterium, Vibrio fischeri, an immune protein called ''macrophage migration inhibitory factor'' is the maestro of daily rhythms.

How the Humboldt squid's genetic past and present can secure its future
Marine biologists studying the genetic structure of the Humboldt squid population found it is vulnerable to overfishing by fleets on its migration path.

UCI scientists engineer human cells with squid-like transparency
In a paper published today in Nature Communications, scientists at the University of California, Irvine described how they drew inspiration from cephalopod skin to endow mammalian cells with tunable transparency and light-scattering characteristics.

Squid studies illuminate neural dysfunction in ALS; suggest new route to therapy
Yuyu Song of Harvard Medical School was a Grass Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) when she took advantage of a powerful research organism in neuroscience, the local squid, to start asking how a mutant protein associated with familial ALS behaves under controlled conditions.

Fossil reveals evidence of 200-million-year-old 'squid' attack
Researchers say a fossil found on the Jurassic coast of southern England in the 19th century demonstrates the world's oldest known example of a squid-like creature attacking its prey.

New genetic editing powers discovered in squid
Revealing yet another super-power in the skillful squid, scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory have discovered that squid massively edit their own genetic instructions not only within the nucleus of their neurons, but also within the axon -- the long, slender neural projections that transmit electrical impulses to other neurons.

Stanford researcher investigates how squid communicate in the dark
Researchers begin to reveal how social squid communicate in the near-blackness of the deep sea.

Gene regulatory factors enable bacteria to kill rivals and establish symbiosis in a squid
Two factors that control the expression of a key gene required by luminescent bacteria to kill competing bacterial cells have been identified.

Read More: Squid News and Squid Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to