The mimic octopus

The ocean’s eight–armed impression artist

by

Article from:
Creation
38(3):12-14
June 2016
swimming
Mimic Octopus swimming
Image: © Gary Bell/OceanwideImages.com

In 1998 a fantastic creature was discovered off the coast of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) is the first living thing ever observed to imitate the shape, colour, texture, posture and behaviour of several other animal species. It performs multiple impersonations as it crosses the ocean floor.

Quick change artists

All octopus species can change the colour and texture of their skin to camouflage themselves, which is amazing in itself, but nothing like the Mimic Octopus’s behaviour had ever been previously recorded. Mimic Octopuses regularly impersonate (mostly) venomous creatures such as:

Banded Sole—the octopus imitates this flat fish with its poisonous spines by flattening out, trailing its legs behind and travelling in the same undulating manner.

Jellyfish—the octopus rises to the surface and then descends with its arms trailing as it pulses downwards, conspicuously ‘jellyfish-like’.

Sea snake—the Mimic changes its colour to the distinctive black and light stripes of the banded sea snake. It hides its body and six legs in a hole while it aligns its remaining two exposed arms in opposite directions, moving them like the venomous snake.

Lionfish— the octopus boldly swims in the open water, transforming its tentacles to appear like the poisonous barbed fins of a lionfish, and copies its movement.

Although the exact number of things it can mimic is unknown, some scientists believe this creature is able to impersonate up to fifteen separate creatures, including stingrays, sand anemones, crabs and mantis shrimp.

Smarter than your average squid

© Gary Bell/OceanwideImages.com jellyfish
Mimicking a jellyfish

Many cephalopods1 can change their shape and colour to match background patterns and textures,2 even impersonating specific objects (rocks, plants, coral) in their immediate environment. The Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea) can even hide in the ‘background’ of a school of parrotfish by impersonating one, but none of that compares to the Mimic Octopus’s ability to impersonate various animals without being among them. They are mimicking other creatures’ visual and behavioural characteristics from ‘memory’.

An octopus may be predator or prey. Camouflage and disguise can obviously be useful in both situations, though the Mimic Octopus’s propensity to imitate venomous creatures is more likely to be of use in deterring those seeking to have it for dinner.

What to wear?

The Mimic Octopus is also able to make seemingly intelligent decisions about which of the multiple ‘personalities’ to choose from. For example, when attacked by damselfish, it mimics the banded sea snake which is known to hunt damselfish. It ‘discerns’ what mimicry behaviour is most appropriate for each situation.

An evolutionary explanation?

Evolutionary researchers discussing the Mimic Octopus’s abilities claim:

The open sand and mud habitat of the Mimic Octopus is a particularly exposed and predator-rich environment, and may explain why mimicry has evolved in this species … Octopuses lack the rapid escape capabilities of squids, and may have been able to occupy this foraging niche only through the evolution of complex mimicry.3

But this only explains why the Mimic’s abilities are useful in such an environment, not the process that developed them. Having four-wheel drive is useful in rough terrain, but that hardly explains the origin of this drive mechanism.

© David Fleetham/OceanwideImages.com sea-snake
Wonderpus Octopus (like the Mimic Octopus) mimicking a banded sea snake

Some researchers have wondered whether sexual selection, a particular type of natural selection, may be involved as well; genes for something preferred by the opposite sex are obviously more readily propagated. One paper says:

Complex behaviours may simply be courtship displays misinterpreted as mimicry. Alternatively, mimicry may have originally evolved as a result of selection for predator deterrence, but may now also be used in mate choice. … [perhaps] females prefer males with large impersonation repertoires.3

But the same paper admits that: “at present there is no evidence to support this possibility”. In fact, the evidence points away from it. Both sexes display mimicry, and it is observed when no other octopuses are around.

In any case, sexual selection is just one special form of natural selection. And as we have often pointed out, selection is a fact, but it can only select from genetic information already in existence. Informed evolutionists know that selection has culling abilities, but not creative ones.

That leaves evolution with only mutations, random genetic accidents, as a source of the information for such mechanisms. So it is no wonder that an evolutionist would have a hard time attempting to explain creatures with mind-boggling behaviours and abilities like the Mimic Octopus in naturalistic terms.

What the animal is doing is fantastic. And it is able to do it all because of the complex, God-designed genetic programming in its DNA.

© Rudie Kuiter/OceanwideImages.com flounder
Mimic Octopus mimicking a flounder

Please explain …

To fully understand what this creature can do, imagine trying to reverse engineer it to make a machine that can do the same thing. Imagine then only having the blind process of accidents plus selection to explain something even the brightest human engineers cannot do.

And think about this: the Mimic must have an incredibly accurate sensor array constantly feeding data to a monitoring system capable of detecting and reacting to different predators. It must also have a ‘database’ of the different predators so it can know how to react appropriately when it sees each one.

This database somehow needs to take into account things like the offensive and defensive capabilities of each predator, as well as which animal is its natural enemy, so that imitating it has the most likelihood of being a successful deterrent. And then the Mimic must be able to consider unseen predators within any environment, e.g., ‘If I travel in this open area without much cover, I could be attacked by X, Y or Z so I should disguise myself as A, B or C, etc.’

Once all of these decision-making processes have resulted in a particular creature of choice to mimic, it must access another database of information that contains separate, incredibly detailed ‘files’ for all of the different creatures it can mimic (including the other creature’s behaviour, texture, posture, colouration, speed, motion, etc.).

The Mimic now needs to manipulate its own structure, texture, colour and posture. It requires a physical form that can be changed almost instantaneously to expand, contract, become extremely rigid or soft, rough or smooth or multi-textured and even multi-coloured and precisely patterned. And all of these abilities are dependent upon accessing and utilizing copious amounts of genetic information.

© Rudie Kuiter/OceanwideImages.com stringray
Mimic Octopus mimicking a stingray

All or nothing

One also has to be immensely creative to try to explain how such finely coordinated mechanisms, often seemingly requiring each other to be useful, could have arisen without forethought or pre-planning, both of which are anathema to evolution. As leading atheopathic evolutionist Richard Dawkins said about foresight in evolution:

There’s no room in natural selection for the sort of foresight argument, that says: ‘Well we’ve got to let it persist for the next million years and it’ll start becoming useful’. That doesn’t work. There’s got to be a selection pressure all the way …4

Changing their tune

However, the relentless discovery of new examples of mind-blowing abilities in living things appears to have some evolutionists changing their tune. The same science article postulated that perhaps evolution is ‘intelligent’!

Evolution may be more intelligent than we thought, according to researchers. In a new article, the authors make the case that evolution is able to learn from previous experience, which could provide a better explanation of how evolution by natural selection produces such apparently intelligent designs.

It goes on to say:

… a key feature of intelligence is an ability to anticipate behaviours that will lead to future benefits. Conventionally, evolution, being dependent on random variation, has been considered ‘blind’ or at least ‘myopic’ —unable to exhibit such anticipation. If evolution can learn from experience, and thus improve its own ability to evolve over time, this can demystify the awesomeness of the designs that evolution produces. Natural selection can accumulate knowledge that enables it to evolve smarter. That’s exciting because it explains why biological design appears to be so intelligent.6

Evolution ‘anticipating’, i.e. ‘thinking’, exhibiting foresight? Such comments would likely have Charles Darwin metaphorically turning in his grave! These comments reveal that in the face of observational evidence for intelligent design, a philosophical commitment to naturalism/atheism seems to prevail, regardless how irrational the attempt.

The Lord has done this

In the end, ‘evolutionary science’ is mostly storytelling for an atheistic worldview. When considering the origin of an amazing animal like the Mimic Octopus, consider Job 12:7–9:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?

References and notes

  1. The class which includes octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and nautiloids, as well as the extinct ammonites and belemnites. Return to text.
  2. See Sarfati, J., colourblind squid camoflague inspires Navy research, Creation 34(1):23,2012; creation.com/colourblind-squid. Return to text.
  3. Norman, M., Finn, J., Tregenza, T., Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus, The Royal Society, accessed at ncsu.edu. Return to text.
  4. Miller, J., Brief History of Disbelief, BBC4, originally broadcast October 2004. Return to text.
  5. Is evolution more intelligent than we thought? Science Daily, 18 December, 2015, sciencedaily.com. Return to text.
  6. Naturalism = the philosophy that everything must be attributed to natural causes (matter + energy + physical laws) since there is no supernatural realm. So it excludes intelligent design by definition. Return to text.
The class which includes octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and nautiloids, as well as the extinct ammonites and belemnites.
See Sarfati, J.,
Norman, M., Finn, J., Tregenza, T., Dynamic mimicry in an Indo-Malayan octopus, The Royal Society, accessed at ncsu.edu.
Miller, J., Brief History of Disbelief, BBC4, originally broadcast October 2004.
Is evolution more intelligent than we thought? Science Daily, 18 December, 2015, sciencedaily.com.
Naturalism = the philosophy that everything must be attributed to natural causes (matter + energy + physical laws) since there is no supernatural realm. So it excludes intelligent design by definition.

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Readers’ comments
Dean R., Australia, 22 May 2016
Amazing Planet (& universe), amazing God. The Lyrebird is also a master of mimicry in terms of sound. Snake skin in leaf litter & the recent article on a young dear in a field of flowers another. So much diversity, so much wisdom despite the fall. God's creation has many true or false challenges or parables. Is there a difference between mimicry & camouflage ?
Calvin Smith responds
Hi Dean, as mentioned in the article, mimicry involves imitating another creature not necessarily immediately present in the octopus's environment rather than simply blending into the background. Blessings, Calvin
Robert N., Australia, 23 May 2016
That comment about natural selection getting smarter, what is that about? Natural selection/evolution are not things or beings that are capable of 'learning'. They cannot learn or grow or 'get better'. That's crazy and just shows how deluded some people really are.
Joseph M., United Kingdom, 23 May 2016
"... evolution is able to learn from previous experience...", "...Natural selection can accumulate knowledge that enables it to evolve smarter..." These statements are a perfect example of the fallacy of reification -- attributing a concrete characteristic to something abstract. Neither nature, natural selection or evolution has a mind to literally learn or design anything. There are a few things in the bible which I am amazed that did/could happen, such as why more people didn't go into Noah's ark, or how can people be blind then lead others who are blind? Matthew 15:14 (KJV) "Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." On the surface this makes no sense. Reading the fallacious proposition from some evolutionists that blind processes and blind natural selection is actually transformed into a personage of intelligence that's responsible for the intelligent biological designs (i.e. the mimic Octopus) that past blind evolution has been producing, truly enlightens me in the profound teachings of scripture. The blind of this age are truly leading the blind! I for one will not go down that path and fall into the ditch of hopelessness and eternal separation from a God who loves us/me.
Aleksandar K., Croatia, 23 May 2016
How can evolution learn or be intelligent? Evolution is a concept, not a physical thing. Is this a new branch of evolution? Evolution of evolution's ability to evolve?
Steven S., United States, 23 May 2016
If evolution can be personified it this manner then it truly has become a god. I really enjoy reading articles such as this showing the amazing design our world.
Doug L., United States, 23 May 2016
Great article Calvin but I have to disagree about one important point. You kept referring to DNA as the source of the mimic's abilities. DNA has the formula to create proteins. It contains some control information relating to how much, when, and where to create proteins and doubtless there will be other information resources discovered about DNA. However no one can say that complex decision making abilities are programmed into DNA. It's more or less an encyclopedia. Your encyclopedia can't make decisions! It just sits there. Evolutionists engage in extreme hand waving when they talk about "instinctive" behavior. They just pass off this tremendously important contradiction to their world view as something that's inherited!! How? By what means? Where? I have to learn everything that I know how to do as far as reacting to the outside world. Who tells the mimic what to do and when? Where is this database of forms, shapes, behaviors, and their relevance to the mimic to which you referred? It's not in the DNA. And even if it were, where is the sophisticated programming required to create the right reaction based on the information in the database? No one can point to its presence in DNA. So the evolutionist just waves his hands and mumbles something about DNA and "instinctive" behavior full well knowing that there is no material, or physical basis for it. The knowledge can ONLY come from God, the creator and sustainer of life. It ain't in the DNA!
Calvin Smith responds
Hi Doug, thanks for your comments. Creationists have no problem believing instinct and complex data bases have been programmed into DNA and/or other coded information systems (see http://creation.com/the-genetic-puppeteer) in living things. Creatures perform tasks they do not actively decide to do all the time, without first having learned it elsewhere. Think of your breathing. Your body instinctively performs that task without you ever having to learn to do it. Blood clotting, blinking and sweating for temperature control all belong in that category. And micro biological machines like Kinesin (see http://creation.com/incredible-kinesin) are performing tasks within us all of the time without us having to think about them. The whole point is that such a library of coded information had to have come about through an intelligent mind, and since it's sophistication seems to become more and more awe inspiring as we learn new discoveries then the mind that created it is surely consistent with the God of the Bible.
F. G., United States, 23 May 2016
"There’s no room in natural selection for the sort of foresight argument, that says: ‘Well we’ve got to let it persist for the next million years and it’ll start becoming useful’. That doesn’t work." That's an intriguingly insightful quote from Dawkins. Does he realize the extent to which it counters what he himself believes?
Robert B., United States, 24 May 2016
Wow! That is the most impressive critter I ever saw discussed on CMI. Let me take a stab at reverse engineering the amazing capabilities you describe here. After rereading the article I don't see any indication whether all specimens including juveniles have the same list of impressions they could perform or whether it was all learned through experience. If the later, then we would have to ascribe some high order intelligence to these animals with them understanding the following scenario: "Here, I might be attacked by 'X, Y or Z so I should disguise myself as A, B or C,..’ because I saw those things attack X, Y and Z" Even with these talents hard coded into the genome of the octopi, intelligence would be required to explain it. Either God's intelligence at the Creation or again, octopus intelligence coupled with a previously unknown epigenetic mechanism that transfers learned behavior from parent to offspring. Fascinating... Thanks!
Calvin Smith responds
Hi Robert. No researcher I am aware of has observed a mimic from birth to be able to definitively determine whether the behavior is all programmed or it has the ability to learn or some kind of combination. My own mimic (very young) impersonated a jellyfish upon entering my tank. This made sense because it was at the top of the tank with nowhere to hide and didn't know if there were predators in that environment. He slowly pulsed down and then switched to his regular form once he had cover. :) Because of his age I doubt he had the chance to observe jellyfish, figure out their movement, shape etc in the wild. But I am only guessing. You will notice in your attempt to reverse engineer the mimic you referred to a hypothetical 'previously unknown epigenetic mechanism that transfers learned behavior from parent to offspring' at one point. Such a mechanism isn't known/observed however.