Archive

Posts Tagged ‘camouflage’

Octopus camouflage – how does it work?

Meat, being high quality food, is a scarce resource in nature. The available amount of meat for any consumer is many orders of magnitude less than the amount of vegetation that is available. If you don´t believe me, just take a look out the nearest window and do a quick calculation over how much animal weight and how much tree or other plant weight you see out there. With notable exceptions such as my home area (where all you will see right now is a lot, and I mean a lot! of snow) and a camel market in the middle of a desert, meat will be extremely scarce and often not even around. Where I sit right now I see probably hundreds to thousands of tons of trees. I see one (very annoying) fly representing available meat.

_MG_1896

Octopus are essentially soft globs of meat living in a world where meat in general is extraordinarily scarce and needed. Octopus will face a never-ending struggle to keep their meat to themselves, and not let anyone else use it for food. It is no wonder that octopus have a number of defenses to actually accomplish monopolizing their meat. Once being seen by a predator, octopus have several defenses. First of all they will try to escape, either by swimming quickly away from the predator or by getting into a small crevice or hole that the predator cannot penetrate. Second they can let go of an ink cloud in order to confound the predator, or, best-case scenario, have the predator attack the ink cloud as the octopus escapes. Third, some octopus can let go of limbs when threatened much like lizards loosing their tail, leaving the predator with a meal but keeping most of the octopus unharmed. Fourth, some octopus can use warning coloration advertising a highly venomous bite when threatened.

Young algae octopus a couple of seconds later

Young algae octopus a couple of seconds later

However, octopus go a long way to keep from having to use their active defenses. they do so by blending in in the environment, that is being camouflaged, in a way that is highly efficient and also very adaptive. One problem with using camouflage in general is that camouflage is site specific. Once out of the area the camouflage pattern is adapted for, the camouflage stops working. A Swedish soldier in his very efficient camouflage for Swedish winter conditions would, if transferred to tropical rainforest, stand out as a huge boil on the forehead of Naomi Cambell! As octopus are highly active, they have to be able to adapt their camouflage to changing environments, which they solve in a way very few other animals do.

Young algae octopus a couple more seconds later

Young algae octopus a couple more seconds later

Texture and color are the two major components of an environment that a camouflaged animal must handle. Octopus handle texture in an impressive way. They can change from looking like a smooth coral to a piece of broken rubble in a matter of seconds. They do this by using muscles in their outer layer of skin, using their very acute eyesight to map an exact picture of the surrounding environment in order to match the texture of the environment with that of the outer surface of the octopus. Some octopus can go from smooth to looking like a hairy piece of decaying sea floor in mere seconds.

Young algae octopus yet some seconds later

Young algae octopus yet some seconds later

Octopus are even more impressive when handling colour matching of the environment. First of all, their sense of sight is excellent, enabling the octopus to know what they have to match. Second, the outer layer of octopus skin has a number of different specialized skin cells, which can change the colour, brightness and reflectiveness of the octopus. These cells are under control of the nervous system of the octopus, enabling extremely fast responses to outer stimuli.

In this way, octopus and many of their allies can live their life being highly successful despite inhabiting a very dangerous environment.

Why good things can be bad.

In every documentary I have seen and book I have read about Lembeh, it is stated that the waters of Lembeh are exceptionally productive partly due to the currents that bring nutritious water through Lembeh strait regularly, partly due the black lava sand more or less defining Lembeh that leaks nutrients into the water. It is easy to envision that such an environment with loads of biological production would be very nice to live in for the creatures inhabiting the strait.

Wire coral gobies, feeding on plantkon that is swept through the strait by currents

Wire coral gobies, feeding on plantkon that is swept through the strait by currents

Surprisingly enough, evolution seems to have been working overtime  in Lembeh, partly shaping the foraging skills of the animals here, but even more obviously perfecting their skills of evading predators. Why is the pressure on prey animals tougher here in the seemingly benign waters of the strait than in other less productive environments?

Lizard fish with the elongated fin rays of a former sand diver in Lembeh

Lizard fish with the elongated fin rays of a former sand diver

Mathematical models of predator and prey populations give us the answer.  For every population there will be a maximum number of individuals that the environment can provide for. This number is called the carrying capacity of a population. If one increases the carrying capacity for a prey population, the prey population will increase the number of offspring that is produced. However, if there are predators around, predators will take advantage of the increase in the reproduction of the prey population, and the predators will increase their population size, leaving the prey at a low but very productive density. Thus every prey individual alive will be faced with a much higher risk of being killed by a predator than in a less productive environment, setting the scene for evolution to try out more and more bizarre and elaborate ways for the prey to survive the onslaught of the predators. Obviously there will be competition between prey on being safer than anyone else which will feed evolution with a drive to use whatever genetic variance giving anyone an advantage over conspecifics or individuals of other species.

Soft coral crab with an almost unbelievable camouflage on its soft coral host in Lembeh

Soft coral crab with an almost unbelievable camouflage on its soft coral host

Why stay here then? Is there really anything good at all living in productive environments then given that you as prey face a never-ending threat from predators? Well, it turns out that the alternative is just as bad. In prey populations that are controlled by food availability rather than predators, prey will reach densities where the food resources are heavily used and most everyone is on the verge of starving to death. The sad truth about being an animal in nature is that, with very few exceptions, you either live a life where every day is a constant struggle to make ends meet, feeding on the very scarce resources not already being utilized by someone else, or you live in constant fear of being torn in pieces by something bigger and fiercer than you are! Sucks, doesn´t it!

Shrimp seeking refuge in anemone

Shrimp seeking refuge in anemone

Luckily for me, as I really enjoy exquisite examples of prey adaptations to evade predators, many prey animals in Lembeh will be on the “lots of food around, but holy smoke it is scary here”  end of the scale. Every dive here will give even a first time diver in the area many examples of what living in such an environment does to prey animals. Also, as a nice side effect, the strait is littered with predators, which we will get back to in a later blog.