Thaumoctopus mimicus

Mimic Octopus

The Indonesian Mimic Octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus, is a monotypic species of octopus that has the uncanny ability to mimic several other sea creatures.

This octopus is up to 60 cm (2 feet) in length, with brown and white stripes or spots covering its body.

Living in the tropical seas of South East Asia, it was not officially discovered until 1998, off the coast of Sulawesi. Before that, divers who had seen the octopus mistakenly thought that they were seeing other common animals which the octopus was mimicking. This octopus is able to copy the physical likeness and movement of more than fifteen different species, including sea snakes, lionfish, flatfish, brittle stars, giant crabs, sea shells, stingrays, jellyfish, sea anemones, and mantis shrimp . It accomplishes this by contorting its body and arms, and changing color.

Many octopus species are quite flexible when it comes to contorting their bodies. For example, one octopus the size of a volleyball can actually squeeze its entire body into a soft drink can. If the mimic octopus has that same degree of flexibility, it would help to explain how it is able to impersonate so many different kinds of animals.

Although all species of octopus have the ability to change the color and texture of their skin, and many species can blend in with the sea floor and look like rocks, the mimic octopus is the first octopus species ever observed to impersonate other animals.

Based on observation, scientists think that the mimic octopus may decide which animal to impersonate based on which predator happens to be nearby. For example, when the octopus was being attacked by damselfishes, scientists observed that the octopus took on the appearance of the banded sea snake, which is a predator of the damselfish. The octopus impersonates the banded sea snake by turning black and yellow, burying six of its arms, and waving its other two arms in opposite directions, so they look like two banded seas snakes.

The mimic octopus is easily confused with Wunderpus photogenicus, another recently discovered species. However, the Wunderpus can be distinguished by the pattern of strong, fixed white markings on its body.

Introduction

Like other octopuses, the Indonesian Mimic Octopus is an intelligent mollusk with a soft, boneless body with eight arms, each with two rows of suction cups. It catches its prey with its arms and kills it with its tough beak or paralyzes the prey with a nerve poison and sucks out the flesh. It has a large eye on each side of its head and good eyesight. It has a large brain but lacks hearing.

The Mimic Octopus, discovered in 1998, is found in the tropical Indo-west Pacific Ocean. It can change posture, color, and motion to impersonate at least fifteen different animals. The best location to find it is in the sand and mud habitats of Lembeh Strait in northern Sulawesi, a province of Indonesia. Because they often live in inaccessible areas of very silty waters of poor visibility and easily change their shapes to resemble other creatures, they long defied detection and recognition as a species.

Habitat and behavior

Biologist Mark Norman thinks that the Indonesian Mimic Octopus's unparalleled ability to imitate disparate animals could be a form of adaptation to its environment. Mimic Octopuses have been known to live exclusively in nutrient-rich estuarine bays of Indonesia and Malaysia full of potential prey. Mimic octopuses use jets of water through their funnel to glide over the sand while searching for prey, typically small fish, crabs, and worms. They are prey themselves: like other octopuses their soft bodies made of nutritious muscle, without spine or armor, and not obviously poisonous, it would be a desirable prey item to such large deep water carnivores such as barracuda and small sharks. Often unable to escape such predators, its mimicry of different "poisonous" creatures often serves as its best defense. Mimicry also serves to allow it to prey upon animals that would ordinarily flee any octopus; it can imitate a crab as an apparent mate, only to devour its deceived "suitor".

This octopus mimics venomous sole, lion fish, sea snakes, sea anemones, and jellyfish. It pulls all of its arms in, flattens to a leaf-like shape, and speeds up with a jet-like propulsion that resembles the swimming of the sole. When it spreads it legs out and lingers on the bottom of the ocean, its arms trail behind to simulate the lion fish's fins. By changing its color to yellow and black and waves its arms in a rotating motion it looks like two venomous sea snakes. Raising all of its arms above its head with each arm bent in a curved zig-zag shape to resemble the lethal tentacles of a fish-eating sea anemone, it deters many fish. It even imitates a large jellyfish by swimming to the surface and then slowly sinking with its arms spread evenly around its body.

Feeding

The Mimic Octopus often feeds by covering an area of sand under a disc of webs while using the tips of its fine arms to flush small animals into its suckers. It can probe its arms deep into burrows or holes to search for prey which it then can pass to its mouth. It can also stalk prey.

References

  • Butvill, David B. The Changeling. "Current Science" October 7, 2005
  • Norman, Mark. Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus. The Royal Society 2001
  • Norman, Mark. Masters of Mimicry. "Nature Australia" Spring 2002, vol 27, Issue 6, p38

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