New research published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology has outed the “flamboyant” cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi, as the plain Jane it really is. Famous for their bright coloration and exhibitionist behavior, it seems these transformative cephalopods actually spend almost all of their time blending into their rather bland, sandy environment. As the researchers on the study soon discovered, their camouflage is so good it actually makes finding them incredibly difficult.
The flashy flamboyant cuttlefish is among the most popular of the cephalopods, a group that is also home to octopus and squid. They have one of the most elaborate courtship displays of the class, which Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Chicago, set out to Indonesia to study. Armed with a team of volunteers, Hanlon and colleagues recorded hours of footage from SCUBA dives.
Males are the smaller of the two sexes and will put on quite a show when trying to attract a mate, sporting bright colors and performing elaborate rituals, including "waves" and "kisses" where they briefly touch tentacles with the female. While the male heartily puts the “flamboyant” in “flamboyant cuttlefish”, the female hangs back, remaining camouflaged and motionless. As it turns out, this is a more representative display of how these animals spend most of their time.
"This animal is well known in the Internet community, has been on TV many times, and is popular in public aquariums," Hanlon said in a statement. "In almost all cases, [its skin] is showing this brilliantly colorful flamboyant display.
"It turns out in nature, flamboyant cuttlefish are camouflaged nearly all of the time. They are nearly impossible to find… The flamboyant display is common when a diver approaches close enough to photograph, which is why the public may think this species always looks so colorful, but it is rare to see this species in flamboyant display in the wild."
The discovery, however, shouldn’t detract from the cuttlefishes’ majesty as when they put on a show, boy do they go for it. Considering camouflage is the primary mode of defense for these animals, it’s understandable to opt for function over fashion when your life is literally on the line. With such high stakes, it’s best to only get dolled up for very special occasions.