Researchers Look to Octopuses for Ultimate Camouflage
The colored dots are the ink packs in squid skin. Or the background of a Fillmore West show in '69.
CREDIT: Lydia Mathger
Color-changing cars, invisible soldiers and houses that regulate temperature by altering their heat absorption are just some of the futuristic technologies that could emerge from a new interdisciplinary push to develop artificial octopus skin.
Octopuses, cuttlefish and other cephalopods are the chameleons of the sea, changing their coloration on the fly to match almost any color or pattern. Intrigued by the obvious military applications, the Office of Naval Research (ONR ) has assembled a team of biologists, chemists and engineers to unlock the secrets of cephalopod color change, and to design an artificial counterpart.
"Industry and society can benefit from learning how to combine pigments and reflectors for a wide range of applications," said Roger Hanlon, a researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory who received an ONR grant to study cephalopod camouflage . "Some of the applications are as simple as heating or cooling things (by absorbing or reflecting solar radiation). Detroit can make cars that change color; fashion designers can make dresses that change pattern - highlight of the cocktail party!"
The trick behind cephalopod's color changing ability lies in the odd mixture of nerves and color sacks that dot their skin. The photosensitive nerves turn the skin into a kind of eye that looks at the environment, and tries to match it. The pallet the skin uses to match what the nerves see consists of different colored sacks that swell to add a large pixel, or shrink to reveal a reflective layer of skin.
Mixing colored dots and a mirror-like reflection allows the creatures to mimic nearly any pattern. The ONR grant that funds the research of Hanlon and others focuses on the basic research needed to better understand how the nerves and color sacks work, and how they interact with each other. For instance, even though cuttlefish are colorblind, their camouflage ability implies that their skin can see colors that their eyes can't.
How an animal, and a material, would process those different signals is one of the many vexing mysteries Hanlon and the other researchers hope to solve.