Cephalopods are the undisputed masters of camouflage. While their relatives, the clams, stayed brainless and safe on the seabeds-of-old, the ancient nautilus (think squid-in-a-shell) made a daring foray into the world of mobile hunting. Today’s cunning stalkers instantly morph into seaweed and rocks, shifting color, pattern, texture, or thermal profile. They become transparent, bioluminescent, or iridescent. How do they do it? Will they teach us? Let’s take a closer look at this remarkable feat of engineering in today’s issue of The Biomimicry Manual.
Meet the “Ben-10” of the animal world. While other octopuses hide in plain sight to stalk a meal, the Indonesian Mimic Octopus shape-shifts his way through a cast of bold, frightening creatures. Predators flee before a deadly sea snake, venomous-spined lionfish, cruising stingray, poisonous flatfish, or the bullet-fast claws of the mantis shrimp. He can imitate at least fifteen species, each one matched to the creature that comes to him looking for trouble.
An ancient Hawaiian legend describes the octopus as the only living survivor of the last universe. He’s a lone hyper-conscious alien from a lost time and place, caring for none of us. Staring into his goat-slit eyes, it’s not hard to believe. He is deucedly intelligent, capable of advanced reasoning and even self-awareness. He purposefully seeks out and stores his tools, planning his next suit of coconut-armor or a door for his den. He is moody (“red means rage!”) and capricious (“watch me squirt the cute keeper!”). A notorious midnight aquarium marauder, he sneaks on silent suckers into other tanks, returning home satiated with neighborly concern. He takes apart Lego, opens screw-lid jars, and pops the tops off childproof Tylenol bottles. He can solve virtually any puzzle if there is a juicy crab inside it.
Yet, the octopus brain seems puny; no bigger than a lizard’s. Oh, but wait. Three-fifths of his neurons are in his arms. He has nerve cells and “eyes” all over his body. Like an eight-legged brainiac Mr. Potatohead, he is an inside-out neocortex covered in cameras. He sees through his skin, and thinks with it too. Each skin-neuron triggers a muscle connected to a tiny, pigment-filled, light-reflecting skin sac, flattening and stretching it to make a patch of that color. As many as two hundred of these sacs, each with its own muscle and brain cell, can fill an area of skin the size of a pencil eraser. It’s a shimmering pixel display that is also watching you.
He’s a muscular, pulsing, tentacled Kindle. Like our octopus, your e-reader has light and dark e-ink capsules instead of skin-sacs, each with a different charge. Apply an electrical current, and they clump together and drop out of sight. Turn it off, and the ink spots diffuse and spread. You may never feel comfortable reading a book again.
As you can imagine, a lot of folks are pretty interested in finding out the secret magic of this trickster’s tricks and replicating them for ourselves. Like how about inventing “smart-skins”; meta-materials that perceive light from all directions, like a squid, while changing color, heat, or texture in real time? Imagine squiddy wallpaper in your home, creating three-dimensional reconstructions of everything inside it for virtual reality or surveillance (you know, like, for yoga videos or something). The military was fascinated with this idea before World War II. Today, DARPA, the Pentagon’s arm, has its eye on “active octo-camouflage”, using cameras to detect a scene, then controlling panels or coatings to match it. How about flexible displays for computers, tablets, and smartphones? A skin like this could not only produce and see light, but texture as well. Imagine full-color iPads that roll up like newspapers, braille eReaders, tactile smartphone keyboards, and of course, some awesome pornography (always on top of technology, no pun intended). A wall-size peel n’stick TV that records, senses, and plays? The new OctoBox 3000? A smart, stretchy fabric that mimics its surroundings? An invisibility cloak!
Efforts to develop these technologies are underway as we speak. Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and his colleagues in places like Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego and University of California Santa Barbara have spent the last three decades exploring octopus camouflage, above and below the ocean surface. The six-million-dollar question (a grant from the Office of Naval Research) is whether we can emulate this remarkable piece of engineering.
Can humans really hope to mimic this brilliant adaptation, fine-tuned over some 500 million years of evolution? Do we really think we can engineer a functional, synthetic squid-skin? Our technologies may seem clever, but they are distinctly primitive compared to the dazzling superpowers of the Mimic Octopus. But at least we get the idea: take a look at what the other 30 million species on this planet are up to, and prepare to have your mind blown. And if the octopus survived from the last universe by consciously imitating the special powers of other species, maybe we can make it to the next one the very same way.