Giant Humboldt squid have a unique way of communicating. Rather than relying on sounds or gestures, they speak to each other using flashes of color. A squid may burst from red to white and back to red again while communicating with another squid. Because the Humboldt is absolutely fearless and has suckers lined with intimidatingly sharp teeth, it has earned the nickname ‘red devil.’ scientists haven’t been able to figure out what all the flashing is about until now.

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It can be difficult to follow the lives of the Humboldt squid because they have been known to rip masks off of divers and attack camera equipment. So for the first time ever, scientists mounted cameras on a trio of squid to get a better picture of how they live. The footage allowed them to start deciphering the incredible language of squid flashes, the results of which were published in a recent study.

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Unlike some creatures, which change color using bioluminescence, squids actually use special skin cells to produce waves of color that move down their bodies. The squid can change the rate at which they flash, though scientists aren’t sure what the different patterns mean. It is possible that the squid are trying to communicate with potential mates or making threats to rivals.

Beyond the more leisurely paced flashing, the squid is also known to flash rapidly, which scientists have determined is likely a form of camouflage. Instead of changing color to blend in with the surroundings like some sea creatures, the squid flashes a pattern meant to mimic the pattern of sunlight moving through the waves. So when a squid wants to make itself scarce, it begins to flash quickly.

The scientists attached the cameras to the squids using a most unexpected method: to affix the camera onto the body of the swimmer-terrorizing creatures, they used child-sized swim shirts. These squid “sweaters” allow the predator’s fins, arms and tentacles to move freely while keeping the camera securely attached. When the researchers are done, they can release the camera from the suit, but the sweater remains attached to the squid. Which means that next time you come across an absurdly adorable squid wearing a sweater, don’t be fooledhightail it as far away as you can.

Via the Journal of Experimental Biography

Images via National Geographic