The Loom

i-c614bc0f8d72eb2c6c4ad32f57838eb5-hanlon cuttlefish.jpgFor years, fellow scienceblogger PZ Myers has taught us all well why we ought to adore squid, octopuses, and other cephalopods. But I came to a new degree of appreciation when I traveled up to Woods Hole to spend some time with the biologist Roger Hanlon. Hanlon studies how cephalopods disguise themselves, and boy do they ever. Right in front of your eyes, sitting in a little tub of water, the animals can practically disappear. Or, if they want to scare you, they turn a chocolately brown with bright stripes.

After my visit, I wrote a profile of Hanlon, which is the lead article in tomorrow’s Science Times in the New York Times. Along with the article, you can also check out a video made by Erik Olsen, who joined me up in Woods Hole. (I gawk, the cuttlefish perform…)

The story is bigger than cephalopods (all due respect to PZ)–Hanlon believes that the same fundamental rules of camouflage followed by cephalopods govern all animals that hide from other animals. I’m curious to see where Hanlon goes with this hypothesis. We even got to talking about Monet, Anselm Adams, and other artists, and Hanlon showed how they use the same tricks as cuttlefish to create a rich, three-dimensional experience from a flat picture.

If you’re hankering for more, here are a few links…

Hanlon’s awesome pirated octopus camouflage video

A man-made gel that mimics cuttlefish skin

Hanlons’s three-category model of camouflage (pdf)

[Photograph courtesy of Roger Hanlon]


  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    February 18, 2008

    The New York Times, I rather think,
    Could hardly be a waste of ink;
    It’s good to see a thoughtful story,
    Showing us in all our glory!
    A walking (swimming) work of art,
    The skin we wear is really smart!
    Chameleons can only wish
    To emulate the cuttlefish;
    A master of the craft indeed,
    With changing hues at lightning speed,
    Resulting in a really slick
    Near-magic disappearing trick!
    Now Dr. Hanlon can surmise
    A simple trick to our disguise:
    Instead of thousands, only three
    Designs account for what you see,
    To help us disappear from view;
    The doctor says here’s what we do:
    We keep our color uniform,
    When solid backgrounds are the norm;
    If busy patterns come, we will
    Turn mottled; that will fill the bill;
    Our outlines disappear from sight
    With our disruptive dark and light.
    Discovering this rule of threes
    Is one of many mysteries;
    But many more are still unknown
    To those who lack a cuttlebone.

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