Have you ever seen a flamboyant cuttlefish? Recently, images and videos of these incredible macro creatures have been popping up all over Youtube and social media. And for good reason, as these pint-sized, stranger-than-science-fiction animals are among the ocean's most spectacular.
Given its name and the breathtaking underwater images, you might expect the flamboyant cuttlefish to put on a non-stop show of pigments and textures. But, this sought after cephalopod actually spends most of its time using the ability to change colours for camouflage - not to put on a show.
A team of research scientists in North Sulawesi have spent weeks observing these tiny animals in the wild. In fact, the expert team from Northeastern University in Boston has been studying flamboyant cuttlefish in the regions since 2002 - and their work has led to some incredible findings!
When they aren't courting a mate, competing with other suitors, or eluding predators, these technicolour critters take on a surprisingly drab appearance. Because they forage in mud and silt, they tend to adopt mottled brown and grey hues. These downplayed tones help them to masquerade as a rock or a lump of sand, should a passing predator come too close. This is actually common behaviour among cephalopods, with squid and octopus also saving their displays for special occasions.
So, why not flash those good looks all the time?
The ocean is full of predators, and flamboyant cuttlefish have to be careful if they don't want to attract unwanted attention. Rather than focusing on looking good, they reserve their colour changing ability for when they need it the most.
For instance, if the flamboyant cuttlefish's camouflage fails, they will attempt to confuse predators with bright flashes of colour and texture. This change in appearance can happen in just 700 milliseconds - delivering quite the shock to any would-be attacker. When combined with other behaviours like jetting and shooting ink, this strategy can distract and confuse hunters for long enough to give the cuttlefish time to escape unharmed.
But, cuttlefish don't just use their colour changing abilities for self-defence. They also use them to attract a mate! Upon spotting a female, males will put on a bright display, wave their arms, and ripple moveable stripes down their sides. They also gently tap the female, in a gesture similar to a quick kiss.
Males also use this technique to intimidate rival suitors, flashing bright white to scare off the competition. And, some industrious individuals were even spotted performing a split display - flirting with females on one side of their body while showing aggression on the other.
But, the flamboyant cuttlefish has to be careful! These fascinating colour shows can catch the eye of lucky scuba divers and predators alike. Researchers witnessed ambush predators like scorpionfish seizing the opportunity for an easy meal by preying on mating and fighting cuttlefish.
It remains to be seen exactly how often flamboyant cuttlefish perform these displays, but scientists believe them to be much less frequent than previously imagined. In fact, this cryptic cephalod likely spends almost all of its time alone and deep undercover.
Want to see a flamboyant cuttlefish in person? Click below to learn about the best diving in Indonesia's stunning Sulawesi region.