Octopus colours signal when to fight… and when to flee

If you have ever been unlucky enough to get involved in a fight, before you swung a punch wouldn’t it have been better to know first whether you stood a chance against your opponent? (Especially if you lost the fight and ended up in hospital). That way, if it’s Mike Tyson squaring up to you, you can get out of there, pronto.

In the case of octopuses, they’re not friendly neighbours. They’re usually solitary and don’t much like sharing their space and food, so are pretty intolerant of each other when they meet. But, instead of fighting off every rival they come across – which would be risky if they are unlucky enough to meet the Mike Tyson of the octopus world – they seem to have a way of assessing whether they are an even match.

New research has shown that when gloomy octopuses (Octopus tectricus) come across each other, they change their colour to display whether they want to fight … or not.

800px-Gloomy_Octopus-Octopus_tetricus
The gloomy octopus (Octopus metrics) lives up to its name – it is usually solitary and very intolerant of other individuals. Wikipedia Commons.

The study, published in Current Biology yesterday, showed that the outcomes of meetings between two octopuses are reliably predicted by the colours displayed by the opponents.

Led by Dr David Scheel at Alaska Pacific University, the team of researchers observed that, if two octopuses both stayed dark, they were more likely to engage in “grappling” – the octopus equivalent of a fist fight.

On the other hand (tentacle), if one octopus becomes paler while the other remains dark, the paler one tends to flee.

In this way, the octopuses display colours that help them avoid having to fight an obviously more beefy individual, which could end up injuring them (or worse). Matching their colours instead helps them face a more evenly matched opponent.

Much like how you would avoid Mike Tyson in a fight (obvs) but maybe, just maybe, treat your younger and cocky sibling to a sucker punch.

This is one of the first studies to show us how colours in octopuses predict the outcome of their aggressive interactions. Nice one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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