Cuttlefish's Color-Changing Abilities: 'Chameleon Of The Sea' Could Inspire New Military, Cell Phone Designs

By Josh Lieberman on January 29, 2014 4:43 PM EST

cuttlefish
The cuttlefish can change its color and pattern in an instant. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists at Harvard University have unlocked some secrets about the mysterious cuttlefish, a cephalopod known as the chameleon of the sea due to its ability to instantly change its color and pattern. In a study published today in the Journal of the Royal Society, the researchers detail the nanophotonic device that allows the cuttlefish to disguise itself in patterns such as zebra stripes and seaweed. The findings have the potential to inspire everything from new camouflage for soldiers to bendable cell phone screens.

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"Nature solved the riddle of adaptive camouflage a long time ago," said study coauthor Kevin Kit Parker of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "Now, the challenge is to reverse-engineer this system in a cost-efficient, synthetic system that is amenable to mass manufacturing."

Scientists already knew that the cuttlefish has pigmented organs called chromatophores, which allow the creature to change its color to blend into its environment (and thus evade predators). But there was still plenty about the process of cuttlefish instantly changing color and pattern that eluded scientists. What the Harvard researchers discovered was that in addition to the pigmented chromatophores, cuttlefish change skin color using two other components: the iridophore, a reflector made up of thin films, and the leucophore, a light scatterer that uniformly spreads light across the visual spectrum.

"Chromatophores were previously considered to be pigmentary organs that acted simply as selective color filters," said study author Leila F. Deravi. "But our results suggest that they play a more complex role; they contain luminescent protein nanostructures that enable the cuttlefish to make quick and elaborate changes in its skin pigmentation."

When a cuttlefish shifts its color and pattern, each chromatophore expands, with a change in surface area of up to a whopping 500 percent. That's one of the most challenging parts of adapting this important cuttlefish mechanism into any potential military or consumer electronic use, according to coauthor Evelyn Hu. It's not possible, at least right now, to create textile or cell phone materials that can expand 500 times in area.

"Throughout history, people have dreamed of having an 'invisible suit,'" said Parker, an Army reservist who completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan and knows the danger of not blending in on the battelfield. "Nature solved that problem, and now it's up to us to replicate this genius, so, like the cuttlefish, we can avoid our predators."

Cuttlefish have one of the biggest brain-to-body ratios among mammals, which comes as no surprise considering their incredible, and incredibly complex, color-changing skills. The process "takes a very sophisticated brain," explains study coauthor Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., in the video below. "There are up to 20 million of these chromatophore pigment cells in the skin, and to control 20 million of anything is going to take a lot of processing power."

The great irony of the cuttlefish's chameleon qualities? The creature is colorblind.

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