Camouflage- the ability to match appearance to environment- is an art perfected by the cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish have the ability to change body pattern and color in response to external cues, such as the physical environment and social context (Figures 1 and 2). They are considered a model organism for the study of camouflage and the effect of environment on physiology. Their complex body patterns change according to environment (Figure 1) and social context (Figure 2). These molluscs are a model organism for the study of camouflage and the effect of environment on physiology.


Figure 1. Cuttlefish camouflaged amongst grayscale rocks. Image from J.K. Wickiser.


Figure 2. Zebra body patterning displayed by males during courting and mating. Image from Georgia Aquarium.

This website describes cuttlefish color-changing behavior through Nikolaas Tinbergen’s “Four Questions”: phylogeny, adaptation, mechanism, and ontogeny (Table 1). Cuttlefish were studied by Tinbergen himself- he was interested in the zebra pattern displayed by courting males (Figure 2; Tinbergen 1939).

Interestingly both the study of cuttlefish, and the four fundamental questions that guide much of animal behavior, may be traced to the writings of Aristotle. Hladký and Havlí?ek (2013) parallel Aristotle’s efficient cause with Tinbergen’s ontogeny, final cause with adaptive value, formal cause with mechanism, and material cause with phylogeny (read more here). Aristotle also studied cuttlefish, remarking that "all molluscs, when frightened, discharge such a juice, but the discharge is most copious in the cuttle-fish" (Aristotle, translation 1910). Researchers, engineers (Figure 3), and the public (see media interest such as this video) continue to be captivated by the abilities of this deep-sea organism. Thus both the object of study and the method of analysis are part of a larger scientific history and context, and yet are still applicable to understanding this curious behavior in a comprehensive manner.


Figure 3. Cuttlefish have become the inspiration for new flexible smartphone technology. Images courtesy of Shelley Eades, San Francisco Chronicle.

Table 1. Tinbergen's Four Questions.




Ontogeny- development of a behavior over one individual’s lifetime

Mechanism- proximate roots of behavior including genes, environmental conditions, hormones, etc.


Phylogeny- evolutionary history of a behavior over many generations

Adaptive value- how a behavior changes an individual’s fitness


Can cuttlefish blend in to a living room? Watch the video.