Flashy rock stars

Giovanna Fasanelli | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 1
The flamboyant cuttlefish confidently pulses bright warning colours to alert would-be predators of its highly poisonous flesh.
They live fast and die young – the pretty and poisonous flamboyant cuttlefish.

One of the marine realm’s most charismatic critters is a true rock star of the muck-diving world: the flamboyant cuttlefish.

Pretty, pugnacious and pint-sized, this aptly named, glamorous cousin of the common octopus has some pretty neat tricks up its tentacles to find prey and avoid being eaten.

There are two species that go by the name of ‘flamboyant cuttlefish’ – Pfeffer’s cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi, a denizen of tropical waters between Australia, the Malay Peninsula and the Philippines; and the paintpot cuttlefish, Metasepia tullbergi, which occurs in cooler waters between Hong Kong and southern Japan.

Apart from their geographic locations, the only way to distinguish between them is to inspect the structure of their internal cuttlebone – that’s a porous, gas-filled calcium shell embedded within their bodies that they use to adjust buoyancy.

A cephalopod’s characteristic trait of morphing body colour, pattern and texture is alive and well within the flamboyant cuttlefish, which demonstrates fantastic camouflage abilities, often using the fleshy papillae around its eyes and along its back to assist with appearing like a loose clump of drifting seaweed.

Unlike many of its cousins, this creature demonstrates an apparent lack of fear when approached. Instead of initiating a hasty retreat, it begins to flash warning colours of bright yellow, red, purple and white. And, curiously, by using its ventral pair of fleshy tentacles, it ambles across its favoured habitat of barren, muddy sea bottoms without any sense of haste at all.

This nonchalant behaviour has long puzzled scientists, as it suggests there was something the cuttlefish knew that the rest of us didn’t. Australian cephalopod researcher, Mark Norman, recently discovered that the flamboyant cuttlefish’s flesh is highly poisonous, akin to the severity of a bite from a blue-ringed octopus. It was also found that the deadly compound belongs to an utterly unique class of toxins, which may yet prove to be of interest to the world of biomedicine.

Regardless of the science behind the phenomenon, a flamboyant cuttlefish putting on its enchanting display and comfortably catching its prey is one of the ultimate prizes of marine wildlife observation and an almost irresistible spectacle that has attracted countless keen underwater photographers to Indonesia’s muck-diving sites.

When it comes to producing the next generation of diminutive killers, the whole event takes just a few seconds. The slightly larger female – which measures no more than 8cm in length – joins head to head with a cautious male, who uses a specialised mating tentacle to reach inside the female’s mantle and swiftly deliver a packet of sperm, which she uses to fertilise her dozen or so eggs. An overturned coconut or other suitable hiding spot makes a wonderful place to hide this precious treasure, where the offspring develop, safe from hungry marauders.

The half centimetre-long hatchlings emerge as ready-to-use, poisonous predators, capable of all the trickery and martial arts manoeuvres their parents master. But they have to live fast, for they are programmed to die at merely one year of age, when they stop eating and their fragile bodies begin to disintegrate and float away.

That all sounds a lot like the life of a true rock star to me!


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