And the Oscar goes to…an octopus?
Have you ever wished that you could change your appearance and look like somebody else, even if it is just for awhile? You may be surprised to know that this is entirely possible – for some animals at least, and that it serves an even more important function of self-defence for these fascinating creatures.
In the animal kingdom, this is a sophisticated process known as mimicry. According to Breed & Moore (2012), mimicry “ occurs when one species evolves to look, sound, smell, or act like another species (p. 283). Mimicry differs from background matching. The latter term refers to an animal that looks like its background. You can consider mimicry to be a more advanced and deceptive form of self-defence as it usually involves looking like some other organism. In background matching, the animal often evades notice. A mimic, however, may be noticed, but it is perceived to be another organism.
Let me now introduce the master of mimicry. The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) a cephalopod, part of a marine class of mollusks. It was only recently discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia (Norman, Finn & Tregenza, 2001) and ordinarily, it somewhat looks like this:
The mimic octopus is the first known species that is able to imitate not only the appearance, but also the behavioural characteristics of multiple species. Interestingly, the mimic octopus takes on the form of venomous creatures such as the lion fish (Pterois) and sea snakes (Hydrophiinae) as seen in the following image. The mimic octopus is on the left column, the animal that it is imitating is on the right column.
With chromatophores (cells that contain pigment and can aid in changing the animal’s size and colour) as well as 8 arms that may span up to 60 cm (Norman et al., 2001), it is no wonder that the mimic octopus is such a versatile creature of disguise – with obvious benefits. By mimicking venomous or inedible animals, it looks unpalatable and is thus able to scare off predators, without the need to actually produce venom by oneself. Moreover, they can alter their appearance very quickly in a matter of milliseconds and hence avoid predators, as shown in the following clip:
Source: “The Indonesian Mimic Octopus,” by marcelnad YouTube Channel, 1 February 2008. URL:http://youtu.be/H8oQBYw6xxc (accessed on 7 Apr 2013)
The mimic octopus – a master of disguise? Proven. Fascinating? Absolutely.
More research is underway, and hopefully we will be able to unlock some of the secrets and discover more about this intriguing creature.
I would certainly like to take some lessons.
Other recommended links you may wish to visit
Another short clip of the mimic octopus in action
Breed, M. D., & Moore, J. (2012). Self-Defense. Animal Behavior (pp. 281–305). Elsevier. Retrieved from http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/B9780123725813000106
Norman, M. D., Finn, J., & Tregenza, T. (2001). Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 268(1478), 1755–1758.
Roach, J. (2001, September 21). Newfound Octopus Impersonates Fish, Snakes. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/09/0920_octopusmimic.html
[The Guises of Mimic Octopuses]. Retrieved April 7, 2013, from: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/files/2009/12/the_mimic_octopus_my_first_ever_post/Mimicoctopus-guises.jpg
“The Indonesian Mimic Octopus,” by marcelnad YouTube Channel, 1 February 2008. URL: http://youtu.be/H8oQBYw6xxc (accessed on 7 Apr 2013)
[Untitled photograph of a mimic octopus]. Retrieved April 7, 2013, from: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_Qe1wgxDiEdU/TKCAsAGdr3I/AAAAAAAACQI/CucVhLFwCRI/s1600/mimic3.jpg
By Cheryl Siah
wow, very interesting indeed. Interesting to note that it mimics venomous and inedible animals to avoid predators, and this got me wondering whether it uses its mimicry to attract prey.
Also, because its able to mimic other animals, during mating seasons, how are they able to identify each other for mating?
This is a very interesting read! From my knowledge, most octopus are associated with corals and burrows that serve as protective covers as these soft-bodied animals are prone to predation. This unique mimicry ability of this species of octopus actually gives it an advantage of moving in open water! One interesting point to ponder over: does the octopus have to have observed the other species (such as lion fish or sea snake) before they can mimic their behaviour or is the ability innate, meaning it has been programmed into them since birth?
WOW SO COOL