The Cuttlefish: An Intelligent Cephalopod
October 09, 2007
Fish | Science

Before I visited the Georgia Aquarium, most of what I used to know about cuttlefish included the fact that they can be purchased neatly packaged in dried chewy form in Japanese groceries. So, I was very surprised when I first met one face to face in the Georgia Aquarium and realized they are remarkably intelligent creatures.

Cuttlefish are invariably curious about people, and will come up and try to get a better look if you catch their eye. They are precision swimmers, able to hover motionless near an object of interest by rippling their skirt of fins, only to suddenly jet off in another direction using their funnel siphon when they have seen enough.

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Posted by ellen at October 09, 2007 12:14 PM

They are equally curious about other cuttlefish - even images of cuttlefish - as the video below by Brian Leahy demonstrates. In the middle of the video, the videographer turns the camera's display around to face the nearby cuttlefish which inspires an immediate darkening response, and causes all the other cuttlefish in the tank to start moving purposefully toward the camera.

An article by Brenna Lorenz describes an encounter with cuttlefish and humans who had the idea to match the gestures made by the cuttlefish with their tentacles. The Cuttlefish of Sentosa (Sentient Cephalopods), by Brenna Lorenz

In a similar vein, a comment on a Reddit story on a troublesome octopus describes how the author, Saydrah, used hand-signals to communicate to a tank full of cuttlefish:

"...Okay, I was 13 and on a school trip to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. Each kid in the class had been assigned a sea critter to study, and mine was the Cuttlefish. I realized while writing my report that in almost every photo of a cuttlefish where it was clear that it could see the person taking the photo, it held its tentacles like this. (click here) I was also learning some sign language at the time, and it clicked: It's a greeting. At least, that was my theory, and as soon as I got to the aquarium I sought out the cuttlefish to test it. There were 16 cuttlefish in the tank. I asked a staff member about them, and she said, "I know we put 16 in there, but they blend in so well we haven't seen more than 6 at a time since then. There haven't been any bodies, so I presume there are still 16." At first I could spot two, camouflaged on rocks. I went up to the tank, knelt down, and held my fingers in the greeting pose from the photos. Incidentally, cuttlefish have 10 tentacles, two of which are set back and only shoot out to grab prey. Much like 10 fingers with two set back thumbs. It's easy to make your hands into a recognizably cuttlefish like shape. With 10 minutes, I had 13 cuttlefish lined up at the front of the tank doing the greeting pose back at me. My teacher got all this on video, and a couple staff members came over and were floored at the sight. They started doing the sign language at the cuttlefish too, and the cuttlefish responded to them also. Some of them also changed color, which obviously I couldn't mimic, and made different tentacle poses, which I tried to repeat back to them. After a couple minutes, one smallish cuttlefish turned red, grabbed a shrimp that was in the tank as a snack for the cuttles, and pushed the shrimp up against the glass in front of my hands. It seemed to be offering it to me. Then a larger cuttlefish turned white, grabbed the shrimp from the smaller one, and the big cuttlefish then repeated the effort to push it through the glass to me! The small cuttlefish turned gravel patterned, shot a jet of water out, and went to hide behind a tank decoration.

from comment by Saydrah on Reddit

The ability of cuttlefish to instantly mimic the color and texture of their environment, particularly the area underneath them, is well known but little understood. They use a layer of chromatophores and a layer of iridiphores (reflective cells) [Meet the Cuttlefish] which are revealed when chromatophores contract as well as detailed muscular control to create visual and textural illusions.

The textures and colors they imitate are so complex that it led me to wonder if cuttlefish use only their eyes as the sole inputs for processing visual information. In other words, if their eyes are covered, can they still mimic their surroundings? Several recent articles present evidence that their eyes are indeed the main sensors. Cuttlefish eyes have been determined to be colorblind, but are sensitive to the orientation of polarization of incoming light. One study determined that contrast is one of the main visual cues used to determine the pattern of camouflage.

Cuttlefish mimicking a net trap
(I don't have an attribution for this photo yet)

Their visual patterning is used for communication as well as camouflage, and even sometimes for hypnotizing their prey [ A Dazzling Show.]

These visual signals have been analyzed and found to have a signal capacity of approximately 3 bits per signal - enough for some primitive communication, if not an actual language in the human sense of the word.


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I have a squid story that happened while snorkling. We came across a line of squid just hanging in the water. There were a dozen or so and they were lined up side by side so if you were facing the line all of them were looking right at you. They weren't in a bunch or randomly ordered. They were in a line. I approached the line from the front right. When I got to about 6 feet from them, the squid at the right end of the line flashed about 10 different iridescent colors very rapidly. The squid to his (her) left, then flashed the same pattern, then the on to the left flashed, and so on down the line. When the information got to the last squid in the line, they all turned 180 degrees, squirted black ink and flew away.

All of the color changes from the beginning down the end through the turning and running took about 2 seconds. They went through probably every color in the rainbow with the colors traveling across their bodies from head to toe: red, blue, green, yellow. I don't really remember the colors or the order, but it was beautiful to see and an obvious means to coordinate an escape with as much ink in the water at one time as possible.

They were not just randomly flashing colors and running in panic. They were timing their escape together.

Wow, what a great story! Thanks for posting that. They're incredible creatures.

Hey! You quoted me! :) Sup? Ran across this looking up new developments in the study of cephalopod language, and noticed my name. Neat!

i LOVE cuttlefish! and i like this article too.

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