Squid are fascinating aquatic creatures found in oceans around the world. They can reach lengths stretching more than 40 feet long, showcase dazzling displays of bejeweled skin, and have been known to turn themselves “inside out.” As one social media post showcased in mid-May 2022, every species of squid also holds the ability to change its colors or patterns when faced with challenging circumstances.
A popular Reddit post captured this unique ability in a video of an “incredible” color-changing squid. A person’s hands can be seen lifting a dark-black squid from what appears to be a tank of water, and as the critter is pulled out, it turns nearly completely transparent. Upon being placed back into the tank, the squid turns deep black once again.
In the two days since the above video was initially posted on May 16, it had received nearly 9,000 upvotes before being removed by the moderators of the forum r/WTF.
We contacted the California Academy of Sciences to determine whether the video was authentic. By email, Steinhart Aquarium Curator Charles Delbeek told us that it is difficult to accurately identify the species without knowing where the video was taken, or how the animal was obtained, but that it appeared to be a common reef squid, scientific name Sepioteuthis lessoniana. This species is found in the tropics, so that ID is highly dependent on where the animal was captured.
Except for the chambered Nautilus, all cephalopods — the scientific grouping that contains squids, cuttlefishes, and octopuses — can change colors or patterns. (Fun fact: cephalopod literally means “head foot” in Greek, notes the Smithsonian Institute. This references the way that a cephalopod’s head connects to its arms.) Patterns and colors are produced by layers of cells stacked together called chromatophores, iridophores, and leucophores. It is the combination of certain cells operating at once that allows cephalopods to possess such a large array of color-changing abilities, explained Delbeek.
“As for what prompted the behavior, the animal was being stressed out by being lifted out of the water, most likely a fright response. They communicate with color and pattern and can alter their colors and patterns in select areas,” said Delbeek, adding that they may also change color when protecting or trying to find a potential mate.
To better understand this complex process, Delbeek explained how chromatophores enable cephalopods to change colors and patterns.
“Octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish have complex multicellular organs that they use to change color rapidly, producing a wide variety of bright color and patterns. Each chromatophore unit is composed of a single chromatophore cell and numerous muscle, nerve, glial, and sheath cells. Inside the chromatophore cell, pigment granules are enclosed in an elastic sac, called the cytoelastic sacculus,” he told Snopes.
To change color, a cephalopod distorts the sacculus through muscular contraction, changing its translucency, reflectivity, or opacity.
“Octopuses (and most cuttlefish) can operate chromatophores in complex, wavelike chromatic displays, resulting in a variety of rapidly changing color schemes. The nerves that operate the chromatophores are thought to be positioned in the brain in a pattern similar to that of the chromatophores they each control. This means the pattern of color change matches the pattern of neuronal activation,” said Delbeek.
“This may explain why, as the neurons are activated one after another, the color change occurs in waves. Like chameleons, cephalopods use physiological color change for social interaction. They are also among the most skilled at background adaptation, having the ability to match both the color and the texture of their local environment with remarkable accuracy.”
Iridophores, on the other hand, are made up of stacks of reflecting plates responsible for the iridescent greens, blues, silvers, and golds that some cephalopods may display. These iridophores contain a protein called reflectin, which some species can control through their nervous system by way of releasing neurotransmitters.
Lastly, leucophores are a type of reflector cell that mirror the colors of the environment, which allows a cephalopod to blend in with its environment.
If you enjoyed learning about this color-changing, deep-sea squid, you may also enjoy these wacky cephalopod stories from the Snopes Critter Country archives:
- Why Octopuses Are So Intelligent
- Is This Glass Octopus Real?
- Is the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus Endangered?
- Does Octopus DNA Come from Space?
- Is Viral Photo of 96-Armed Octopus Real?
- Did an Octopus Throw a Spoiled Shrimp at Its Handler?
Cephalopods | Smithsonian Ocean. https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/cephalopods. Accessed 18 May 2022.
Colour Changing Squid Mating Ritual | Blue Planet | BBC Earth. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNi7CtG-heg. Accessed 18 May 2022.
“Is This a Vampire Squid Turning Itself Inside Out?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/is-vampire-squid-turning-inside-out/. Accessed 18 May 2022.
“Is This Deep-Sea Strawberry Squid Real?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/strawberry-squid/. Accessed 18 May 2022.
“Rapid Adaptive Camouflage and Signaling in Cephalopods.” IBiology, https://www.ibiology.org/ecology/cephalopods/. Accessed 18 May 2022.
SamMee514. “This Incredible Color-Changing Deep Sea Squid.” R/WTF, 16 May 2022, www.reddit.com/r/WTF/comments/uqzxuk/this_incredible_colorchanging_deep_sea_squid/.
“The Secret of a Squid’s Ability to Change Colors May Lie in an Unexpected Sparkle on Its Skin.” News @ Northeastern, 5 Mar. 2019, https://news.northeastern.edu/2019/03/05/the-secret-of-squids-ability-to-change-colors-may-lie-in-an-unexpected-sparkle-on-its-skin/.
“Was a Giant Squid Found in a Harbor in Japan?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/giant-squid-sighting-japan/. Accessed 18 May 2022.