Watch A Cuttlefish Camouflage Itself in an Underwater Living Room

These amazing cephalopods can adapt their appearances to match their surroundings—even if their environment is a tacky living room with a checkerboard-patterned floor.
Cuttlefish have incredible powers of disguise.
Cuttlefish have incredible powers of disguise. / Reinhard Dirscherl/The Image Bank

In the ocean, cuttlefish are the masters of disguise. The mollusks belong to the same class, Cephalopoda, as squids, octopuses, and nautiluses. Like some octopuses, cuttlefish can change their shape, color, and texture to blend in with seaweed, sand, coral, and pretty much any other underwater scenery they encounter.

But how would a cuttlefish fare in a less-familiar setting? Would it be able to camouflage itself against the more structured patterns seen in a human being’s living room, for instance?

The BBC’s Richard Hammond set out to answer that question in an episode of Miracles of Nature. Hammond designed an underwater living room set, complete with a black-and-white checkerboard floor, striped walls, and a calico-patterned couch. Then, he released a cuttlefish into the room, and observed how it adapted to its surroundings. The cuttlefish swam around a bit to investigate, then settled on the checkerboard floor; its skin color changed to a black-and-white pattern that didn’t quite master the geometric regularity of the floor. The little guy had better luck when plopped down on the couch. It was able to camouflage itself against the chintz by altering its color to a mottled reddish brown and its skin texture from smooth to bumpy. The experiment proved that cuttlefish are, indeed, masters of camouflage—though they probably wouldn’t win a game of hide-and-seek against a human competitor.

A cuttlefish camouflaged against a coral reef.
Spot the cuttlefish. / Cavan Images/Getty Images

How do they do this neat trick? Cuttlefish have pigmented organs called chromatophores distributed throughout their skin. The super-intelligent mollusks can control the shape and texture of the chromatophores so that they reflect or absorb light, thereby changing colors according to the message the cuttlefish want to convey. Scientists have been able to quantify common cuttlefish patterns [PDF] and interpret them as means of camouflaging themselves from predators, hunting prey, attracting mates, or defending their territory.

Biologists continue to plumb the secrets of cuttlefish intelligence. In 2020, researchers put custom-made sets of 3D glasses on the mollusks to gauge their depth perception.

A version of this story was published in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.