Colourblind squid camouflage inspires Navy research

by Jonathan Sarfati

Article from:
December 2011 Colourblind squid

Cephalopods—the group of mollusks that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish—are famous for their amazing ability to blend quickly into their surroundings. Now the US Office of Naval Research is funding research in several universities into man-made materials that have the same instant camouflage properties.1

On land, the chameleon has a most ingenious colour-changing system.2 But the colour changes are caused by hormones that travel through their blood system. Cephalopods change colour through their nervous system, so they adjust much faster—in only a second or two.

Even more amazing, they do so despite being colourblind themselves! So how do they know what colours they need to produce in order to match their surroundings? It turns out that their skin has the same sort of light-sensitive proteins as the eye—opsins—meaning that the skin itself can ‘see’ the surrounding colours and change colour accordingly. Researcher Thomas Cronin, an opsin specialist, said:

“The opsins may check the environment cell by cell to see what they’re doing, or they may sense color in a way the eyes are not capable [of] doing.”1

The researchers are still investigating whether the colour change involves the brain, or is an automatic skin response. They are also trying to find out whether different opsins detect different colours (wavelengths).

These scientists plan to work out how the sensors are constructed and embedded in the cephalopod skin. This might enable them to make sheets of material—nicknamed ‘squid skin’—that could sense the background and change colour to match.

This is not the first example of human designers inspired by cephalopods. Another example is a highly energy-efficient TV screen modeled from one of the cuttlefish’s colour-changing mechanisms, the iridophores.3

In fact, there is a whole field of biomimetics—copying the ingenious designs in biology.4,5 This combines many different branches of science. For example, this ‘squid skin’ project includes experts in nanotechnology, materials science, marine biology, and animal behaviour. Yet this is merely imitating the One who has supreme mastery of all the sciences, because He is responsible for all the laws by which He upholds the universe (Colossians 1:15 ff.)6

The article1 made another interesting point that inadvertently refutes a favourite anticreationist argument, by atheist Richard Dawkins and others. That is, the cephalopods’ fish predators have much better colour vision. Yet Dawkins has attacked the vertebrate (including fish) retina as being wired badly because it is ‘backwards’, while the cephalopods supposedly have the ‘right’ front wiring. Yet the ‘backwardly’ wired eyes see better, because they are a fine design feature. Recent discoveries show that the Müller cells form a fibre optic plate that transmits light through the nerves to the photoreceptors without distortion, and even screen out stray reflections and remove chromatic aberration.7

References and notes

  1. Gwynne, P., Navy Studying Squid Skin to Create New Camouflage Patterns;, 21 May 2011. Return to text.
  2. Sarfati, J., A coat of many colours: Captivating chameleons, Creation 26(4):28–33, 2004; See also By Design, ch. 3, “Colours and Patterns”, 2008. Return to text.
  3. Sarfati, J., Cuttlefish colour changes inspire new energy-efficient TV screen design, Creation 32(1):22–23, 2010; Return to text.
  4. Expert engineer eschews “evolutionary design”: Philip Bell interviews creationist and Professor of Engineering Design, Stuart Burgess, Creation 32(1):35–37, 2009; Return to text.
  5. See also the articles under Return to text.
  6. See Sarfati, J., Why does science work at all? Creation 31(3):12–14, 2009; and The biblical roots of modern science, Creation 32(4):32–36, 2010; Return to text.
  7. See Sarfati, J., Backwardly wired retina “an optimal structure”: New eye discovery further demolishes Dawkins;, 27 May 2010. Also this refutation of critics:, 3 July 2010. Return to text.
Gwynne, P., Navy Studying Squid Skin to Create New Camouflage Patterns;, 21 May 2011.
Sarfati, J.,
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Readers’ comments
Robert B., Australia, 27 May 2013
My common experience of squid skin is as tough, squelchy, smelly layer to be removed and given to the cat. Thanks for the info. about its sophistication. Dawkin’s assertions in River out of Eden:
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we hould expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
are refuted by the properties of squid skin, and all living things. Scientists have made the skin chromatophores dance to the music of Cypress Hill, but the real beauty is when you see live squid in action as God intended:
How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Psalm 104
Peter N., Australia, 27 May 2013
I've seen video on TV where male squid or cuttlefish display a welcoming pattern on one side (towards a female) and a different, hostile, pattern on the other side to ward off male rivals. If this is the same mechanism used to change the pattern, then it implies control by the brain rather than by an automatic skin response.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
What you observed could well be an example of brain control, and fine control it must be. This could well override an automatic skin response, if that’s what it is.
Alan H., United Kingdom, 27 May 2013
Wow isn’t Nature clever. So to get even more ‘research’ done using evolutionary theory all we have to do is blow things up and wait billions of years for marvellous artefacts we can use to magically appear. No wonder Harry Potter is so admired. We can scrap all the Universities and places of ‘Higher’ learning and replace them with pages of typed text fed into a paper shredder, wired to a hand grenade. Big bang random chance research at it's best! As a note I still prefer the infinite number of monkeys and the typewriters. At least then we still have the paper, monkeys and working typewriters as no big bang.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
Stephen W., United Kingdom, 28 May 2013
How foolish are those who assume that these creatures could evolve this way. When you weigh up the odds If they needed this mechanism to survive they would of been wiped out whilst waiting to evolve into it thats common sense. Intelligent design can be the only answer when all things are considered. They are obviously designed for a purpose as are all creatures. Take them out of their purpose and they are pointless. Now theres food for thought. The atheist evolutionist ignores his purpose and becomes pointless.