How Do Octopuses Change Color? (And Why?)

Angry coconut octopus changes color

Octopuses are masters of disguise. These impressive sea creatures can transform their appearance in a flash, blending seamlessly with their surroundings. This is all thanks to special color-changing cells in their skin. 

Octopuses can change their color incredibly quickly, allowing them to hide from predators, sneak up on prey, and even communicate with each other. 

But how does this complex system work?

In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of octopus colors. We’ll uncover how fast they change color, the different colors they can turn into, and more. Let’s start!

How Do Octopuses Change Color?

Octopus with tiny chromatophores in the skin

Octopuses have thousands of tiny chromatophores embedded in their skin. These contain sacs filled with different colored pigments. By stretching or contracting a sac, they make the pigment more or less visible on their skin, allowing them to change color.

Think of these sacs as tiny colored balloons that can inflate or deflate. Depending on how stretched or contracted, each sac appears either lighter or darker in color. 

These special pigments aren’t their only trick. To match their surroundings even better, they have additional cells called iridophores and leucophores

Iridophores reflect light to produce shimmery, bright colors, while leucophores help the octopus perfectly mirror the colors around it.

Octopuses can even change the texture of their skin by raising or lowering tiny bumps called papillae.

Together, these systems create the octopus’s amazing camouflage abilities. They can disappear into rocks, coral, or seaweed with unmatched precision and speed.

Here’s a recap of what happens when an octopus changes colors:

  • Chromatophores activate: The octopus’s brain sends signals to its chromatophores — tiny organs with pigment sacs.
  • Sacs stretch or shrink: Muscles around each sac expand or contract based on the signals, much like how balloons inflate or deflate.
  • Pigment shows: As sacs stretch, more pigment becomes visible on the skin. When they shrink, the pigment becomes less visible.
  • Color combinations: By working with different colors in layers, octopuses mix and match hues to create complex patterns.
  • Reflection and mirroring: Special cells called iridophores and leucophores help the octopus match the light and colors in its surroundings.
  • Texture change: Bumps on their skin called papillae raise or lower, making their camouflage even more realistic.

Watch this video to see octopus changing colors in the wild:

Amazing Octopus changing colour transformations - BBC

Fun Fact: Despite their ability to manipulate color and pattern, most octopus species are believed to be colorblind. 

The eyes of octopuses possess only a single type of photoreceptor, limiting their vision primarily to shades of light rather than color. It’s amazing to think that they can camouflage easily despite not seeing color the way we do!

How Fast Can an Octopus Change Color?

A beautiful octopus changing colors in shallow water

Octopuses are some of the fastest color-changers on Earth. They can shift their color and patterns in fractions of a second — faster than a human eye can blink. 

Some species complete a full-color change in as little as 200 milliseconds (about one-fifth of a second), while most do it at around 700 milliseconds. 

According to an octopus expert, Dr. Roger Hanlon, the octopus’s brain has direct control over its chromatophores, bypassing the need for slower hormonal signals found in many other color-changing creatures.

Scientists are still uncovering the workings of how octopuses change their colors so rapidly. We know it involves a complex system of nerves and muscles directly connected to the chromatophores, but there’s still a lot to discover.

On a related note, I recall a Ted Talk given by Dr. Hanlon in 2012. He talked about how cephalopods use a surprisingly limited number of camouflage patterns. 

What I found fascinating is the fact that these patterns seem to work across almost all animal visual systems. In other words, it can mimic a lot of stuff despite having only limited patterns.

Watch this video to get a sense of how chromatophores work under the microscope:

Insane In The Chromatophores: Stimulating Squid Skin With Music

What Colors Can Octopuses Turn Into?

Reef octopus with a greenish blue color

Octopuses possess a wide range of colors in their camouflage toolkit. Most commonly, they can display various shades of brown, orange, red, yellow, and black.

Depending on the species, some octopuses can even take on greens, pinks, and whites. They achieve these brighter hues using reflective cells in their skin called iridophores and leucophores.

While incredibly versatile, there’s one color most octopuses struggle to replicate perfectly: true blue. 

Since octopuses only have black, brown, orange, red, and yellow pigments in their sacs, it is nearly impossible to create a true blue based on the rules of color theory. 

However, some octopus species use specialized reflective cells in clever ways, achieving bluish hues under certain lighting conditions.

Fun Fact: Aside from chromatophores, iridophores, and leucophores, photophores are also present in some octopus species. This is responsible for the production of light or bioluminescence. 

Only a handful of species are known to exhibit bioluminescence. One notable example is the Midwater Glowing Sucker Octopus (Stauroteuthis syrtensis).

Why Do Octopuses Change Color?

The color-changing abilities of octopuses play a crucial role in their survival in the underwater world. They shift colors for different reasons. 

Here are some reasons why octopuses change color:

  • Camouflage: The primary reason is to blend perfectly with their surroundings. By mimicking rocks, coral, or even the texture of the ocean floor, octopuses can hide in plain sight from predators and ambush unsuspecting prey. 
  • Communication: Octopuses communicate through color and pattern changes. Specific colors or displays can be used to attract mates, show dominance within their group, or give bold warnings to predators.
  • Expressing Mood: Scientists are still studying this, but some evidence suggests that octopus color changes can subtly reflect their mood. Whether it’s excitement, fear, or a defensive attitude, some shifts in coloration might be linked to how an octopus feels.
  • Distraction and Startling: Some octopus species have a more dramatic defense strategy. They flash bright colors and startling patterns to confuse predators. This sudden shock often gives the octopus a chance to escape or use other tactics, like inking.
  • Enhancing Other Tricks: Species like the Mimic Octopus combine color changing with amazing body shapeshifting. This lets them impersonate other sea creatures, like eels or lionfish, to scare off threats or sneak up on prey.

In essence, octopuses change colors to survive and thrive in the ocean. By changing their colors, patterns, and texture, they are able to navigate the challenges of their daily lives in the sea.

Fun Fact: Are you curious about how much energy octopuses use when changing colors? Scientists from Walla Walla University set out to answer this question. 

In their experiment, they took small pieces of octopus skin with chromatophores from Octopus rubescens and put them in a special device that measures oxygen use.

They used blue light to make chromatophores expand (like they do when camouflaging). Then, they switched off the light to let them relax. This tested the energy cost of expanding vs. resting.

Researchers did calculations to see how much energy one chromatophore needs and how this energy use compares to the octopus’s total energy needs. Their results, however, have not yet been made publicly available.

How Surroundings Affect Octopus Color

Caribbean reef octopus changes its color to white

Octopuses possess an extraordinary ability to adapt their appearance based on their environment. Here’s a closer look at how their surroundings directly influence their color and texture:

  • Light and Depth: Octopuses possess light-sensitive proteins within their skin. This allows them to detect light intensity and the general color spectrum of their surroundings. In shallower waters, they might display more diverse coloration. Meanwhile, in darker parts of the ocean where light is limited, octopus camouflage may rely more on mimicking textures.
  • Dominant Visual Cues: Octopuses primarily analyze and match the most significant colors and patterns around them. They’ll utilize their chromatophores to blend with a vibrant kelp bed just as readily as a plain sandy bottom.
  • Textures: Octopuses can manipulate bumps on their skin (papillae) to seamlessly match rough rocks, algae, or wavy seafloors. They respond and mimic the appearance of these environmental features to blend in. 
  • Continuous Responsiveness: Octopuses constantly “read” their surroundings. When an octopus transitions to a new location, its camouflage changes in a matter of seconds. 

It is worth noting that scientists are still uncovering the secrets of octopus vision and their complex responses to their environments. 

Ongoing research will likely reveal even more fascinating connections between octopus colors and their surroundings.

Do All Octopuses Change Colors?

The vast majority of known octopus species can change color. This incredible ability is central to their survival, used for camouflage, communication, and even startling predators. 

However, some deep-sea octopuses living in near-darkness might have less dramatic color-changing skills. 

This is likely due to the nature of their surroundings. Because their surroundings have less visible light, colors are less distinct. This means these octopuses don’t need to be as precise in their color mimicry.

Overall, while there are slight variations, color-changing remains a hallmark of the octopus family. However, there are a few exceptions to this. 

One of them is the rare glass octopus, a nearly transparent octopus that relies on a different camouflage strategy suited to its environment.

These creatures inhabit the dimly lit ‘twilight zone,’ hundreds of meters below the surface. Instead of vibrant color changes, their survival depends on near-invisibility.

Their bodies are almost entirely transparent, except for a cylindrical shape housing their eyes, digestive system, and optic nerve. This minimizes their silhouette in the open water, making them incredibly difficult for predators to see.

Fun Fact: The Wunderpus photogenicus, a species of octopus, is believed to have individually unique patterns.

In a 2008 study, scientists closely analyzed the white spots on the backs of these octopuses. They discovered that each octopus has a unique pattern of spots that remains the same over time.

This is a fascinating discovery. Think about it: octopuses change colors all the time, yet this species retains its own identifying markings!

Frequently Asked Questions

Octopus changing colors when a man approaches it

Do Octopuses Change Color Based on Emotion?

Scientists are still exploring the connection between octopus colors and emotions. However, current research suggests a complex link between the two.

It is possible that certain colors or patterns reveal internal states like fear, agitation, or excitement. However, the primary goal of color change in octopuses remains blending in or standing out as needed for survival. 

Do Octopuses Turn Red When Angry?

In the scientific community, it is not widely accepted to say that an octopus turns a certain color when ‘feeling’ a certain way. 

For instance, while red can be part of an angry octopus’s display, it isn’t the only ‘anger’ color they use. Some species might actually go very pale when irritated, aiming to look larger and more intimidating.

Others may opt for sudden, high-contrast, flashing patterns to confuse predators. Essentially, octopuses change color in response to their environment and not necessarily their internal ‘emotions.’

How Do Octopuses Know What Color to Change?

Octopuses have specialized receptors in their skin that can detect light, including its intensity and general color wavelengths.

Their remarkably responsive nervous system connects this data, allowing them to select the best camouflage for the situation. 

This means an octopus doesn’t just match a single color but actively recreates textures and complex patterns through its skin to blend into its environment.

Why Do Octopuses Change Color When Sleeping?

The reason for color shifts in sleeping octopuses is something scientists are actively investigating. Studies have shown periods of sleep where there seems to be less active control over their color and pattern displays.

Theories range from an automatic leftover survival response to potential connections with dreaming, but there’s no definitive answer yet.

Did you find this guide helpful? Share with us your ideas and thoughts about the fascinating world of octopus colors by leaving a comment below!

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