Although thousands of new species of animal are discovered every year, the majority are never going to make headlines, given that most vary in only very minor ways from existing species. But when fishermen discovered the mimic octopus off the beautiful Indonesian island of Sulawesi as recently as 1998, they really had uncovered something new. Or had they? In fact, there’s every chance that this creature had been spotted before, just not recognized, as it may have looked like an entirely different animal at the time.
What can a mimic octopus mimic?
That’s because – as the name suggests – the mimic octopus has taken the flexible bodies and color-changing abilities shared by most octopi to the next level and become as close as we have found to a true shape-shifter. While other animals have learnt to camouflage themselves or even imitate others, the mimic octopus is the only species able to transform into several different animals by replicating their shape, color, size and behavior. It’s been witnessed shifting its skin colouring and tentacles to mimic more than 15 kinds of sea creature, including lion fish, sea snakes, anemones, flatfish, jellyfish, stingray, crabs, and shrimp.
How does it know what animal to mimic?
You may notice that these creatures have something in common. They are all either venomous, poisonous or clawed, and thus equipped with the kind of self-defenses that will keep most predators at bay. This suggests the mimic octopus is selecting its disguises with some intelligence. In fact, the topic of how the mimic octopus has learnt to become such a master of disguise is hotly debated online, with some believing that the answer is hard-coded instinct, others saying it is a matter of evolutionary chance, and others arguing that these skills must be learnt through observation and intelligence. It’s certainly true that the mimic has a brilliant ability to choose the right disguise for each situation, more proof of the ingenuity that octopi are famed for.
However the mimic octopus came by its abilities, they are undoubtedly useful and impressive. These rare mollusks are only found in shallow water around estuaries, which are usually exposed habitats that attract a lot of predators. These include many of the animals the mimic will imitate, including lion fish, sea snakes and stingrays. The water in these estuary areas tends to be murky with silt dragged up from river beds, which is why the octopus usually appears in a muddy brown color, helping its disguises to be even more effective.
Like many of the most amazing creatures on our planet, they really have to be seen to be believed – so check out this video Most intelligent Mimic Octopus in the world.
When moving along the sea bed, they typically arrange their arms in a leaf-shape and undulate their bodies to look just like a sole, a common and poisonous flatfish common to its habitat. An alternate disguise is to appear like an even more dangerous lion fish, while if they are attacked, mimics have been witnessed hiding six of their arms in a hole and raising the other two in opposite directions, now decorated with thickly banded black and beige to appear like a highly venomous banded sea-snake.
They are also known to use their abilities for offense as well as defense. While the main benefit of the mimic’s chromatophores, its specialized colour-changing skill cells, may be outwitting predators, they can also be used to capture the worms, crabs and small fish it prefers to feed on. Sometimes it will disguise itself as a coral reef and wait for its prey to come to it, other times it can appear like a harmless creature or object and stealthily sneak up on its victim.
What other aninamls can mimic?
The mimic octopus isn’t the only creature capable of disguise, of course. On land, the chameleon has been admired for millennia for its colour changing abilities. Usually, these are defensive, with the chameleon attempting to fade into the background to escape predatorial attention. However, male chameleons have been known to make themselves look like females in order to sneak past males and attempt to copulate with their chosen partners. Many insects have evolved to mimic other creatures or objects: katydids, in particular, have evolved a wide range of camouflage adaptations so their shape and color can resemble leaves, sticks, twigs, or tree bark.
In the sea there are perhaps even more creatures which use some form of mimicry. In the deep sea, anglerfish are famous for having at least one long filament sprouting from the head which they can dangle in front of their mouths to appear like a small and vulnerable little creature. The use of bioluminescence can make this even more effective, drawing other fish in close enough for the anglerfish to snatch with its giant jaws. Similarly, some species of turtle and catfish have developed strange, long tongue extensions that lure prey into becoming an easy catch.
But none of this really compares to the extraordinary abilities of the mimic octopus. In fact, the nearest comparison might be another mollusk we have written about – the flamboyant cuttlefish. The flamboyant cuttlefish will also assume other shapes in its attempts to intimidate, confuse or fool predators or prey, and does even more extraordinary things with its chromatophores. The big difference is that a cuttlefish can only go so far in its shape shifting, thanks to its central cuttlebone, a kind of internal shell which gives it an essential shape. The mimic octopus lacks any such rigid structure and is thus far more flexible in its shape-shifting.
That means that for now the mimic octopus is almost certainly the most impressive shape-shifter on our planet. Or, at least, the most impressive one we have detected. There is always the possibility that we come into contact with others all the time, but they’re so good at their job that we simply haven’t worked it out.