Where's The Cuttlefish

Duke biologist Sarah Zylinski wants to better understand how cuttlefish see the world. Like their relatives octopus and squid, cuttlefish are master camouflagers—and Zylinski says you can learn something about how they process visual information by testing how they change their skin patterns in relation to different backgrounds.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Flora Lichtman's here with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: It's a beauty. It's a reprise, a sort of a follow up.

LICHTMAN: Yes. It's a sequel you might say.

FLATOW: A sequel. Thank you. I was looking for that word. I was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Do you remember the ever-popular where's the octopus?

FLATOW: Who could forget?

LICHTMAN: Who could forget?

FLATOW: That holds the record for our most viewed video.

LICHTMAN: I know. It's half a million views.

FLATOW: It's much more than that.

LICHTMAN: Really?

FLATOW: Now, you haven't checked the latest numbers, yeah. It's got this...

LICHTMAN: Billions of views.

FLATOW: ...pushing 600,000, higher and I know - oh yeah.

LICHTMAN: All right.

FLATOW: Oh yeah.

LICHTMAN: OK. Well, so sequels are hard when you have such a good original, but I think the cuttlefish is pretty cool. So this video is about cuttlefish camouflage. Cuttlefish are relations of octopus and squid, and they are also masters at blending in with their background. I mean, the pictures from Sarah Zylinski, who's a Duke biologist, were amazing. She sent them. I opened them in my email, in my Gmail account, and I'm looking at them. I'm like, there's no cuttlefish in these pictures. I'm about to respond and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I guess that means they have photos.

LICHTMAN: ...and then, thankfully, I enlarged them looked closer because they're really very - they're very hidden.

FLATOW: They use camouflage just like the octopus do.

LICHTMAN: Just like the octopus do, and they have - they sort of use them for different things. So what Zylinski's interested in is how a cuttlefish sees the world.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And that's a challenging question because if you ask a cuttlefish how it sees the world, it doesn't say much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You can wait for a long time for an answer.

LICHTMAN: That's right. So her trick is to look at their skin and to see how their skin changes when she gives them kind of weird backgrounds because they always want to blend in, especially if they have Sarah Zylinski standing over them where they get a little bit nervous. And so she gives them these different backgrounds and sometimes it's a checkerboard. And in this latest study that she published this week along with colleagues, she looked at circles. And the question she was interested in is whether - if you show a cuttlefish or put it on a background, over on top circles that are not complete - they're sort of fragmented - do the cuttlefish respond in the same way? And it turns out they do.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR talking with Flora Lichtman who's taken us to the edge of discovery right here.

LICHTMAN: I know you're on the edge of your seat.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I...

LICHTMAN: Do the cuttlefish see the circles?

FLATOW: Do they? Do they or - and...

LICHTMAN: They do.

FLATOW: They do.

LICHTMAN: They do. So, OK. So you might be thinking, well, OK, I see fragmented circle as a circle too. What is the big deal? But, you know, imagine this, these guys are not close relatives of us. The idea that a cuttlefish would see the world the way you do is really surprising, at least to Sarah Zylinski and to me. I'm a convert. I also find it surprising...

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LICHTMAN: ...after she walked me through it.

FLATOW: Well, I think that's all really cool stuff to know, but the really interesting stuff for me is watching that cuttlefish change its spots and colors and camouflage in the video that you...

LICHTMAN: That is the cool part. I mean, it's totally mesmerizing. And actually, one of my favorite clips sent by Zylinski has almost nothing to do with camouflage. In fact, it's this unsolved mystery of coloration that has to do with snacking and then changing their body color.

SARAH ZYLINSKI: When they grabbed these (unintelligible), it's quite often coupled with this really, really strong body pattern change, and that doesn't make perfect sense because it seems to make it very conspicuous. So one theory is that, you know, it's just - it's almost like a happy signal of how excited it is to have caught something.

LICHTMAN: We've all been there.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: You have a snack and you fill just joyful.

FLATOW: Do a little dance, right? So that's - so it looks like the cuttlefish - it looks like it's doing...

LICHTMAN: That's what it looks like. It grabs this crab in the tank, and as you said, you know, there's something a little creepy about it because it just bolts after it.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's just - yeah. It's like watching Marlin Perkins in the "Wild Kingdom." You know, it goes after it. It eats this crab, and it's just a happy, little cuttlefish.

LICHTMAN: It goes from like brown and grab his - all this flashing, all this colors just like I do when I have, you know, a box of Good and Plenty).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And so the mystery is - she doesn't study how it changes its color, right? Other people are studying why it does that stuff.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And we've looked - I mean, I think she understands it. She looks at that, too, but they have this little ink pockets on their skin. They're called chromatophores. And you can actually, in the octopus videos, and if you're in this camouflage, you should check this guy, too...

FLATOW: Yeah, I got it. Right.

LICHTMAN: ...because you see high-definition look at how these chromatophores expand and contract, and it looks sort of like a TV screen. It's just these flashing colors.

FLATOW: We have a Second Life tweet that came in and says: What does a cuttlefish do in the presence of fractal patterns? Well, you show in the video not fractal patterns, but she puts them in...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...the tank with different pattern like checkerboard, right?

LICHTMAN: Like a checkerboard, and they turned - they have this amazing responses called the disruptive - that's what scientists call it - disruptive response where they have this blocky light and dark squares that they flash on their back. And what's amazing is that in the video you can see this too. They have them on big rocks. And when they're on those rocks, if you have this disruptive pattern, you really can't make them out. So it's like a checkerboard. It's pretty cool.

FLATOW: All right. So we now have a two-album set.

LICHTMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: Go to

LICHTMAN: If you study cephalopods and are interested in, you know, what's the third one?

FLATOW: Well, we'll have to figure out that out.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: We'll call the third one - we used to use them for bait. I can't remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Squid.

FLATOW: Squid. There you go. We'll make a trilogy. We now have two parts of the trilogy. We have the cuttlefish added to the octopus. So where's the octopus? And this week, it's where's the cuttlefish? You can see them both from Flora Lichtman up there in our website at sciencefriday.com. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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