The Flamboyant cuttlefish has a few tricks up each of its eight sleeves, and gives a dazzling, pulsing, technicolour display on the sandy floor of the coral reef.
Discover how these fabulous cephalopods live fast, die young and give dazzling displays on the sandy floor of coral reefs.
LIVE FAST, die young’ is a motto many cephalopods adhere to, and for the Flamboyant cuttlefish, Metasepia
pfefferi, this is no different. Setting out on a fast track to maturity, they face a race against the clock to reproduce before senescence kicks in, and with a life expectancy of just a year, time isn’t on their side.
Their silt-filled, muck homelands of the Indo-pacific provide a perfect refuge from the predator-rich waters of the coral reef. Camouflage is key in these open expanses of nothingness, where a splash of colour could put the average inhabitant top of the menu.
The Flamboyant cuttlefish isn’t your everyday cephalopod. Despite attaining a maximum length of 8cm, they think nothing of taking to the sand for a stroll, decked in their finest garb, and willingly stand their ground at the first sign of conflict. It takes courage to take on threats far greater in size, but then they do have a few tricks up one of their eight sleeves.
At first glance, ‘flamboyant’ seems an oversight – these nondescript little cuttles typically come in a fetching muddy-grey colour. Like other coleoid cephalopods, though, they possess chromatophores, leucophores and iridophores – a collection of organs beneath the skin that enable them to alter their colouration in the blink of an eye.
When disturbed, vivid flashes of purples, blues and yellows assault the senses, startling would-be predators. What makes this light show even more impressive is that the patterns are not static – the waves of colour constantly change in a multitude of hypnotic pulses. For further effect, they can change their shape, too, adjusting their fleshy papillae to break up their outline.
If this firework display doesn’t deter predators, the cuttle has another ploy. It can release clouds of ink into the water, providing a smokescreen to help it make its escape.
Another contributing factor to their apparent boldness is their toxic flesh. It’s easier to strut your stuff on the silt when you possess the potency to back up your technicolour warnings. With toxins similar to those of the blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena sp., it’s a brave creature that tries to make a meal out of this little cephalopod.
As well as toxic muscles, the Flamboyant cuttlefish has three hearts, through which blue blood flows, and a ring-shaped brain, with the oesophagus running straight through the middle. To cap it all off, while many other cuttlefish inflate the gas-filled chambers of their cuttlebones for buoyancy and mobility, the Flamboyant cuttlefish prefers to escape on foot, using a pair of its arms as legs.
That’s all great, but how do we house them, I hear you cry? Well, you don’t. Not yet anyway.
Their wild population is unknown and due to their short life and the terrible shipping mortality rates, plus their potentially deadly bite, this is one species best suited to the ocean, rather than an aquarium, for now.
CHRIS SERGEANT Chris works in conservation research and regularly writes for aquarium publications.