Octopuses Can 'See' with Their Skin: Even without Eyes, Body Can Sense Light, Trigger Color Changes

By Milius, Susan | Science News, June 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

Octopuses Can 'See' with Their Skin: Even without Eyes, Body Can Sense Light, Trigger Color Changes


Milius, Susan, Science News


Octopus skin can detect light and respond to it--no eyes or brain required.

Tests of fresh skin samples from California two-spot octopuses (Octopus bimaculoides) show this ability clearly for the first time in any cephalopod, says Todd Oakley of the University of California, Santa Barbara. White or blue light prompts the pale skin's tiny quick-change color organs, or chromatophores, to expand, creating waves of yellows and browns.

The octopus tests, along with another research team's new studies of two kinds of cuttlefishes and a squid, feed discussion about whether light detection in places other than eyes plays some role in cephalopods' changing color displays. All four species studied have light-sensing compounds in tissues beyond their eyes, the two teams report in the May 15 Journal of Experimental Biology.

Biologists have known that eyes and the central nervous system have a major influence on prompting color displays that camouflage octopuses or let them communicate. A paper in 1993 foreshadowed this, reporting that octopus skin itself also seemed to respond to light, Oakley says. His coauthor and UC Santa Barbara colleague Desmond Ramirez worked for months to determine that light triggers a color-change display in detached octopus skin samples. The researchers speculate that the eyes' main light-sensing protein, one of many forms of opsin, may also be active in skin as a sensor for light.

That idea fits with Ramirez's discovery that blue-green light prompts the quickest start for the skin samples' color changes. The light isn't very different, just 10 nanometers longer in wavelength, from the blue light (470 nanometers) that most strongly stimulates the eyes' opsin. Genes known to encode compounds that work with opsin also turn on in the octopus skin, the experiments show. …

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