Octopi are among the most creative and intelligent invertebrates on the planet, and many species are well known for using clever camouflage and colorful displays to fool predators. But perhaps no species is quite so radical an escape artist as the mimic octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus.

Capable of shapeshifting its body into a variety of forms, the mimic octopus has been known to take on the shape and behavior of anything from a lionfish to a sea snake. In fact, the long list of known animals this creature has been known to mimic includes flatfish, venomous sole, stingrays, flounders, giant crabs, sea shells, mantis shrimp, and even jellyfish and sea anemones.

Since the octopus was first described and as recently as 1998, the question of how these high-risk shapeshifting strategies evolved has yet to be answered by science. But now, for the first time, a team of scientists from Conservation International and the California Academy of Sciences have used DNA analysis to tell an intricate tale of adaptation, reports Wildlife Extra.

"The close relatives of the mimic octopus use drab colors and camouflage quite successfully to hide from predators," said Dr. Christine Huffard, marine conservation priorities advisor at Conservation International Indonesia. "Why does [the mimic octopus] draw attention to itself, and repeatedly abandon the camouflage abilities it inherited from its ancestors in favor of a bold new pattern?"

Evolving such complicated techniques of trickery takes guts. It's not easy to mimic the look and behavior of a completely different species, let alone a whole medley of them. If the octopus fails in its act, it could easily end up as a predator's lunch.

Evolutionary strategies

Focusing on the genetics of the octopus' ability to flatten its arms and head and swim along the sea floor like a flatfish, the research revealed the different evolutionary strategies that this costumed creature may have utilized.

By mimicking venomous creatures such as a poisonous flatfish, the octopus is able to scare many cautious predators away. Not only can it shapeshift, but it can also change the patterns of its skin to that of the creatures it mimics (notably, the zebra sole has a black and white striped pattern which helps it stay camouflaged against the sandy ocean bottom). Lastly, the octopus' complicated display may serve as an honest warning sign of its unpalatable flesh.

"While the mimic octopus' imitation of flatfish is far from perfect, it may be good enough to fool predators where it lives," noted Dr. Healy Hamilton of the California Academy of Sciences. "In the time it takes a predator to do a double-take, the octopus may be able to get away."

Though risky, these strategies have performed well for the mimic octopus. The animal's remarkable ingenuity and artful intelligence shouldn't be overlooked, either.

"This study reminds us that evolution does not have an endgame, but is a continuous process," said Huffard. "These octopuses will continue evolving as long as we can protect them and their habitat from threats such as trawling, land reclamation, and run-off."

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

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