Critter of The Week #6 : Flamboyant Cuttlefish

Not even Hollywood could dream up something as incredible as this tiny ocean resident. First of all, the flamboyant cuttlefish isn't a fish at all! It is a tiny mollusc or cephalopod that is related to octopuses, squid, and even snails! It gets its name from the "cuttlebone" inside its main body cavity. This spade-shaped "bone" is a remnant of an outer shell they used to have millions of years ago that is now used for buoyancy.
These guys are very small, growing up to 3 inches in size and have tentacles just like a squid.
 
Out of all the cuttlefish, the flamboyant cuttlefish is one of only three poisonous molluscs in the ocean. Its skin contains a unique toxin that will kill or harm anything that tries to consume it, including humans.
 
An indicator of its deadly toxicity is revealed by something called aposometic coloration, or coloration that is bright and contrasting to the environment. We see this in many poisonous or dangerous animals like the coral snake or red velvet ants. It's not only beautiful, but it serves as a warning.
 
Perhaps the most well-known and mind-blowing ability of the flamboyant cuttlefish is their powers of camouflage. Nothing else in the animal kingdom comes even close to the almost supernatural ability these creatures have at mimicking their surroundings.
It far exceeds even the chameleon because the cuttlefish's nervous system is directly connected to its skin pigment cells. It can instantaneously change color, texture, and the shape of its skin. Chameleons on the other hand have slow acting hormone-controlled pigment cells and they do not actively try to mimic their surroundings. Their colors are more reflective of their mood instead.  
 
Scientists have been forever intrigued by these amazing abilities and have just begun understanding how good they are at blending in with the background. Other cuttlefish species have even been placed near a checkerboard, and have come close at mimicking the pattern.
 
Another cuttlefish species was put to the test by the BBC in this very situation. What you see below is its incredible attempt at trying to mimic man-made patterns. It's impressive how well the cuttlefish does considering it has evolved for hundreds of millions of years to mimic things only found in the ocean, not to mention it learns how to do this in its short 1-year lifespan! The flamboyant cuttlefish has the same capabilities as these other species.
 
What scientists have discovered is that cuttlefish perceive the world more like humans than their snail and slug relatives. When presented with incomplete circles or shapes, our brains automatically fill in the missing pieces.
The cuttlefish's brain do the same thing. Scientists are baffled as to why or how since most invertebrates don't come close to this kind of perceptive abilities. It deepens the mystery of these fascinating alien-like creatures even more! 
You can see in the video below how they "walk" along the ocean floor and their amazing pulsating color change abilities.

 

As we said before, only the flamboyant cuttlefish does this among all cuttlefish.  

Cuttlefish are also world renowned for their intelligence. Scientists agree they are perhaps the smartest of all invertebrates. Octopuses originally held the title, and we have all seen videos online of them opening jars and solving puzzles. But the cuttlefish performs even better and manages to stay focused longer than an octopus. Amazingly, their brain is shaped like a doughnut and contains the same kind of brain cells found in ours! 
 
Scientists compare cuttlefish intelligence to some birds like pigeons. To some, this may seem insulting, but pigeons perform very well during laboratory tests and the old "bird brain" myth doesn't exactly hold true anymore.
 
Cuttlefish are also social creatures, not as social as most mammals but they interact with each other quite often. They use a huge array of colors to signal aggression or submission to each other, and to ward off attacks or court a mate.
They have been known to have one half of their body displaying colors of aggression towards a rival, and the other side has more calm coloration facing a potential mate.
     
They also do something that no other cuttlefish or cephalopod does, they will "walk" along the ocean floor with their tentacles. The reason for this is they have a small cuttlebone. The cuttlebone is the same thing you see in parakeet cages or in pet stores for birds to chew on for calcium. These long flat "bones" are inside the cuttlefish and help make them buoyant and are a leftover of an external shell.
  
The flamboyant cuttlefish has such a small cuttlebone that they sink easily to the ocean floor, and will walk as a means to get around.   
When they are threatened they will stand their ground and provide a flashy display as a warning that can be seen in the image above. 
        

Scientific Classification

Kingdom : Animalia

Phylum : Mollusca

Class : Cephalopoda

Order : Sepiida

Family : Sepiidae

Genus: Metasepia

Conservation Status : 

Data Deficient

"Data Deficient" means no population surveys have been conducted.

Number of Different Species : 1

Flamboyant Cuttlefish :Metasepia pfefferi

 

Range :

Flamboyant cuttlefish are found in shallow waters between 10-200 feet deep along the Northern Australian Coast, Southern Coast of New Guinea, and scattered across the Philippines, Sulawesi, and a few other islands.

 Habitat : 

As mentioned above, they prefer hunting along the ocean floor, in and around coral reefs, and among aquatic plants and debris.

 Diet & Hunting Technique :

 

Flamboyant cuttlefish are extremely efficient predators and hunt in much the same manner as their cousins, the squid. They have 2 translucent tentacles tipped with powerful suckers that will shoot out and grasp their prey. Once it is secured, they will bring it into their mouth which contains a very powerful beak that will tear apart their food.

They normally eat crabs, shrimp, and other molluscs, but will also catch small fish.

Before they attack their prey, the flamboyant cuttlefish usually try to conceal themselves with the proper coloration. Once the prey is captured you can see an instant change in the cuttlefish's colors. Scientists believe this is possibly a signal of excitement that they cannot control, much like a dog wagging its tail.

Below you can see the whole process for yourself!

Reproduction:  

When it comes time to mate, flamboyant cuttlefish will approach face-to-face. The female is about twice the size of the male and he will insert a sperm packet into a special pouch in the female's body cavity. She stores the sperm and uses it to fertilize her eggs. She then finds a secluded spot and lays up to 200 eggs, and then dies.

In about 25 days, perfect miniature replicas of adult flamboyant cuttlefish emerge. The tiny larvae have all of the same behavior and capabilities of the adults and will hunt tiny, almost microscopic prey until they reach adult size in about 6 months.

Below you can see videos of how they mate, lay eggs, and the young hatching. The image below shows a young cuttlefish only a few days old.  

Below you can see a female searching for a safe place to lay her eggs.

Here you can watch how baby cuttlefish hatch into the world!
 

Relationship With Humans:

Lucky for flamboyant cuttlefish, their deadly poison gives them no culinary value to humans, and so they are not harvested as food anywhere in their range. 

Due to their short lifespan and scattered distribution they are also not regularly collected for the pet trade.

Their cuttlebone is very small, so it has no economic value. 

A few aquarium specimens do exist, and they can breed in captivity, so they do have some appeal for their beautiful colors and intriguing behavior. For now, they can be seen at several major aquariums such as Monterey Bay. 

Otherwise, plan a snorkeling or scuba diving trip to Australia and see them for yourself!

If planet earth had alien visitors, the flamboyant cuttlefish and its relatives would be it. For an animal that only lives 1 year, and is related to snails and slugs. They are capable of some truly incredible feats of camouflage, intelligence and hunting. Science is only beginning to scratch the surface of what these masters of disguise are truly capable of.