Mimic and wunderpus octopuses might sound like some kind of bizarre circus act, but this is no illusion. These two amazing specimens are very real and more than live up to their names.
Only described by scientists in 1998 and 2006 respectively, the mimic octopus and wunderpus octopus are both relatively new on the dive scene. And, combined with their rarity and deceptively similar appearance, these two species are often wrongly identified. So we’ll straighten out a few of the facts, and, when you’re lucky enough to spot one, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at.
What do they look like?
Octopuses are masters of disguise, and the mimic is the most cunning of them all, making identification a little tricky. But for divers, it’s not the deliberate disguises that pose the biggest challenge. The mimic octopus and its close cousin the wunderpus - or sometimes wonderpus - octopus, not only share similar habitats, but also look remarkably similar. In fact, divers regularly misidentify these two species, particularly in the excitement of finding one, when telltale characteristics might go unnoticed.
So who’s who?
So what does the mimic octopus actually look like? Well firstly, they are relatively small, growing to around half a metre, or 60cm at most. Their bodies are naturally a brownish-beige colour, but are most frequently seen displaying a darker brown background with white spots and stripes - a contrasting colour scheme found in numerous poisonous marine creatures. Mimic octopuses have pencil-thin arms, each featuring two individual rows of suckers.
Unfortunately, much of the above sounds almost indistinguishable from a wunderpus octopus, so here are a few things to look out for. Wunderpuses are generally a reddish-brown with white highlights, rather than the dark brown or black and white colour often adopted by the mimic. The markings on a wunderpus octopus also have clear and contrasting borders, while a mimic’s markings have less discernible edges. If it’s a mimic octopus, you might also be able to see a continuous white line along the entire length of each arm.
If markings and colours are proving difficult, there’s a couple of other tricks you can try. If they are out and about foraging for food, consider the time of day. Mimics are confident creatures and can be seen during all waking hours, while wunderpuses prefer hunting at dusk and dawn. And, even if they’re hidden away in a burrow you can often still tell these two apart. The eyes of a wunderpus sit high above the head on tall eye stalks, whereas the mimic’s eyes appear shorter and rounder in comparison.
In these stark, exposed environments, wunderpuses make their homes in burrows, either dug themselves or by another animal. Spending the majority of the day in the relative safety of its hole, the wunderpus will emerge around dawn and dusk to feed under the shadowy light. Featuring a slight webbing to their arms, wunderpuses often favour ‘web-casting’ as they forage, flaring out their arms over an area of sand or coral - much like an umbrella - to trap its prey. But, that’s not the only method they use, and wunderpuses can also be seen probing holes and crevices with their arms trying to flush out potential prey.
Again, the mimic octopus is very similar in this respect, with one major difference - the mimic can be seen foraging at all times of day. And, many believe that this distinction is the root of several more unique behaviours. Without the dim light of dusk and dawn as cover, or a busy reef to blend into, the mimic octopus has taken to disguising itself as other animals. But not just any animals, as mimics model themselves on some of the ocean’s most poisonous and predatory.
Depending on who you ask, these cunning tricksters can take on the form of anywhere between three to ten or more different animals - some more convincingly than others. In one particularly striking example, the mimic octopus flattens its body and propels itself along, just above the seafloor with its arms trailing behind in the shape of a teardrop. At a glance, this movement is almost indistinguishable from the banded sole, also found in the east Indian and western Pacific oceans. Incredibly, these octopuses seem to make informed decisions about the form they take. For example, when under attack by a damselfish, the mimic will often retreat to its burrow, leaving just two arms in sight. Together these two appendages look remarkably similar to a sea snake, one of the damselfish’s key predators.
Where can they be found
Originally discovered off the coast of Sulawesi, it was thought that the mimic octopus rarely strayed much further, as almost all sightings were restricted to Indonesia and Malaysia. More recently, this curious cephalopod has since been spotted as far away as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The wunderpus has a very similar distribution, centred around the Indo-Malayan Archipelago and extending north to the Philippines, and southeast to Vanuatu.
As close relatives, these two species have very similar preferences when it comes to finding a home, and can both be found in shallow waters with sand or silt substrate. Interestingly, this is often around little-explored areas such as seemingly barren estuaries and river mouths, meaning these species could be living a little further afield but have so far remained undetected.
As with all the ocean’s most elusive creatures, there’s never a guarantee of spotting a mimic or wunderpus. But to even be in with a chance of finding either species, you’ve got to know where to look. So to give you the upper hand, here’s a few of their favourite hang-outs.
Without doubt, Sulawesi’s Lembeh Strait is one of the best destinations to catch a glimpse of either species - or both if you’re lucky! This incredible channel of water is often referred to as the critter capital of Indonesia, if not the world, and is home to all manner of weird and wonderful species.
Ambon is fast gaining a reputation for offering once-in-a-lifetime encounters with rare creatures, some of which can be found nowhere else on earth. Weird and wonderful cephalopods, such as the mimic and wunderpus octopuses, are among this destination’s unique inhabitants and can be found throughout the season.
Often overlooked by dedicated divers in favour of more remote destinations, Bali still offers its fair share of underwater treasures. For the chance to catch a glimpse of a mimic or wunderpus octopus, head to Pandangbai’s disused jetty, which has gained a reputation as a top for macro life amongst divers in the know.
Dumaguete and Dauin
If you’re looking to find elusive octopuses or curious cuttlefish, Dumaguete and nearby Dauin are great places to start. In fact, these two neighbouring destinations have their very own cephalopod season, which runs from September through December. During this time, your chances of an encounter aren’t just marginally better, they are actually highly likely.
Anilao is the Philippines’ answer to Padangbai, offering some of the country’s most accessible muck diving, just a few hours from Manila. This destination has become popular as a place where divers can see pretty much every critter in their wish list, including wunderpus and mimic octopuses.
Mabul and Kapalai
The sheltered reefs and bays around these secluded tropical islands are packed to bursting with sought after critters. Mabul’s signature muck site, Paradise 1, and the Kapalai jetty are two of the best spots to search for wunderpus and mimic octopuses.
Are you ready to test your wits against these two cunning cephalopods?
Well you’ll have to find them first. Luckily, our team of industry experts has all the knowledge you’ll need to maximise your chances. So get in touch today.