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Cuttlefish and Intense Zebra Display

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    Sepia latimanus, common name cuttlefish, can be considered as one of the most uniquely evolved creatures of marine habitat. The species, despite their name, are not a fish, but molluscs. Cuttlefish are part of the order Sepia and belong to the class Caephalopods, which also includes squid, octopuses, and nautiluses. ‘Cuttle’ is a reference to a unique internal shell, the cuttlebone. As with all other mollusks, the cuttlefish has a calcium-based mantle which shapes the body, which is not unlike that of a jellyfish in ways other than appearance. The cuttlefish have eight arms, not unlike octopus, and two tentacles.

    Between these two tentacles is the mouth. The eyes of the cuttlefish, which vaguely resemble human eyes, extend from the front of the face. Cuttlefish’s eyes are unable to detect color, yet it has the ability to change color in both degree and kind, making it easily surpass the abilities of a chameleon. The most stunning feature of cuttlefish is their skin. Cuttlefish skin is composed of three layers that have up to 200 pigment cells called chromatophores per square millimeter. The first and deepest skin layer is white in color to act as a light retracting base for the other layers.

    The middle layer produces blue, red, green, orange and even pink through the iridescent light reflecting cells inside the skin. The outer most layer consists of pigment cells that are like tiny disks of color which are too small to see. The layers of specialized skin also contain tiny plates of the protein chitin, called Iridophores, which are responsible for the light reflection. Cuttlefish camouflage is impressive not only because of the speed at which these animals can change patterns and colors but also because their camouflage is apparently very effective at deceiving the visual capabilities of their varied predators.

    Cephalopods have a remarkable ability to change the color and pattern of their skin, and research has demonstrated that visual input regulates these changes. Cuttlefish skin can show 20–50 chromatophore patterns that are used for both camouflage and communication. Cuttlefish can change their body patterns within a fraction of a second because chromatophore organs are innervated directly from the brain.

    Because of its speed and diversity, body patterning in cuttlefish is the most sophisticated form of adaptive coloration in the animal kingdom. Although many aspects of cephalopod vision are known, the visual features of a given substrate that evoke adaptive coloration are relatively unstudied. Cuttlefish employ three major body pattern types for camouflage: Uniform and Mottle patterns that function by generally matching the background, and Disruptive patterns that primarily act to break up the animal’s recognizable outline (Mathger, 2008).

    Background matching has recently been defined as a form of camouflage where the appearance generally matches the color, lightness and pattern of one (specialist) or several (compromise) background types or there is a general resemblance but not exact pattern match to the immediate background. Disruptive camouflage has recently been defined as a set of markings that creates the appearance of false edges and boundaries and hinders the detection or recognition of an object’s, or part of an object’s, true outline and shape.

    Disruptive body coloration is a primary camouflage tactic of cuttlefish. Because rapid changeable coloration of cephalopods is guided visually, different visual backgrounds and video record the animal’s response by describing and grading its body pattern. The strength of cuttlefish disruptive patterning depends on the size, contrast, and density of discrete light elements on a homogeneous dark background. Results show that Weber contrast of light background elements is—in combination with element size—a powerful determinant of disruptive response strength (Mathger, 2008).

    Furthermore, the strength of disruptive patterning decreases with increasing mean substrate intensity (with other factors held constant). Interestingly, when element size, Weber contrast and mean substrate intensity are kept constant, strength of disruptive patterning depends on the configuration of clusters of small light elements. This study highlights the interactions of multiple features of natural microhabitats that directly influence which camouflage pattern a cuttlefish will choose (Mathger, 2008).

    Cuttlefish can also exhibit countershading, which causes them to make their undersides lighter than their topsides. This makes sense, since animals looking up would expect to see a light coming from the sky above the ocean. This type of behavior is also known as self-shadow concealment because it acts to cancel out the differences in directional light caused by the fish’s shadow. In fact, cuttlefish posses possess a countershading reflex that causes them to make their upwards-facing sides darker even when they are disoriented (Mathger, 2008).

    Another manner in which cuttlefish’s color changing ability helps them stay concealed from predators is disruptive coloration, which breaks up the shape of the animal. Cuttlefish, for example, have dark patterning around their eyes in a dark bar, which make their eyes less conspicuous (Mathger,2008). Furthermore, the light and dark components of the cuttlefish’s coloration alter the prominence of different parts of its body, in a process that is called differential blending because different parts blend in better with its background than other parts.

    The camouflage skin has been proven to act as a form of communication as well as a survival tactic. Although cuttlefish are generally regarded as non-social animals, it is still possible that they communicate to facilitate agonistic or sexual encounters. The best documented of these displays is the Intense Zebra display, which is an agonistic display usually exhibited by sexually mature males. Evidence suggests that this pattern is an honest signal of fighting intent, and contest winners have more highly contrasting patterns than contest losers (Mathger, 2008).

    Specifically, the darkness of the “face” (the area extending from between the eyes to the beginning of the first two arms) indicates the cuttlefish’s willingness to escalate the fight. Although it may initially seem counterintuitive to enter into an agonistic interaction while signaling one’s intention to withdraw, the authors posited the following explanation for such behavior. First of all, it would be dangerous to “bluff” and signal aggressive intentions if a cuttlefish lacked them, because doing so poses a very high risk of leading to a fight and ensuing injury and energy expenditure.

    However, not presenting the Intense Zebra Display at all presents its own disadvantages. Males blinded on one side do not see approaching males on that side and therefore fail to adopt an Intense Zebra Display (Mathger, 2008). When this occurs, the approaching male attempts to copulate, leading to fighting and inking. Thus adopting the Intense Zebra display is necessary to signal maleness in cuttlefish, who lack “visually overt sexual dimorphism. This conclusion is borne out by other data, as the Intense Zebra Display seems to be brought about by the sight of a rival male, and that male cuttlefish show more of the behaviors associated with this display to other males than they do to females. In short, there is strong evidence that the Intense Zebra Display is a use of the cuttlefish’s ability to change its appearance in order to communicate with other cuttlefish, particularly in order to signal maleness and agonistic intentions.

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    Cuttlefish and Intense Zebra Display. (2017, Jan 06). Retrieved from

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