I was reading this account of an encounter between three cuttlefish — a consort male escorting a female, who is challenged by an intruder — and the story was weirdly familiar.
The intruder’s pupil dilation and arm extension began the first of three brief bouts over the course of about four minutes, each with escalating levels of aggression. The consort male met the initial insult with his own arm extension and — as only color-changing animals like cuttlefish can do — a darkening of his face. Then both males flashed brightly contrasting zebra-like bands on their skin, heightening the war of displays further.
Bout number one would go to the intruder as the consort became alarmed, darkened his whole body, squirted a cloud of ink in the intruder’s face and jetted away.
For more than a minute, the intruder male tried to guard and cozy up to the female, but the consort male returned to try to reclaim his position with a newly darkened face and zebra banding. He inked and jetted around the pair to find an angle to intervene, but the intruder fended him off with more aggressive gestures including swiping at him with that fourth arm. Bout number two again went to the intruder.
Then the intruder crossed a line.
He grabbed the female and tried to position her body to engage in head-to-head mating, but she didn’t exhibit much interest, Allen said.
The intruder’s act brought the consort male charging back into the fray with the greatest aggression yet. He grabbed the intruder and twisted him around in a barrel roll three times, the most aggressive gesture in the cuttlefish arsenal. He also bit the other male. The female, meanwhile, swam out of the fracas.
The intruder fled, chased off by the victorious consort male. Study co-author Roger Hanlon, Brown University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., moments later observed and filmed the consort swimming with the female. Allen was affiliated with the Brown-MBL Joint Program in Biological and Environmental Sciences while Akkaynak was studying in a joint Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Woods Hole Oceanagraphic Institute graduate program.
“Male 1 wins the whole thing because we saw him with the female later, and that’s really what matters,” Allen said. “It’s who ends up with her in the end.”
OMG, I thought, that is the plot of every Popeye cartoon ever. Popeye is strolling along with his goyl, Olive Oyl, when Brutus comes along and snatches her away, battering Popeye a few times in the process. Then Popeye makes a spinach-fueled comeback and beats up Brutus.
Read it again with that trope in mind. It’s uncanny.