Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Wonderpus!

By Sophia Read
For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ These days we are all, unfortunately, rather blasé – seen it, done it, bought the t-shirt. We prefer nature in easily packaged, consumable forms – 45 minutes of the wonders of the Antarctic, or the African veldt, is quite enough. The ocean has very few species that are attractive to this type of viewing – essentially, fish really aren’t cute. They resist bring “humanized” – unless Pixarized.

However, under our noses, every day, the most amazing new creatures are being discovered in our oceans. Two of the most incredible must be the Mimic Octopus, and the Wonderpus. These two distinct species are completely new to science, and have only bee adequately described, and categorized in the past 10 years.

That the seas around Bali are home to an incredible diversity of marine life is no surprise to anyone who has been diving or snorkeling, or indeed having a seafood barbeque on the beach. But the idea of completely new species, exhibiting never seen, or imagined, behavior or abilities, seems far-fetched.

The Mimic Octopus, Thaumoctopus mimicus, was not officially discovered until 1998 in waters off Sulawesi. The “mimicry” displayed by this octopus is unique. Like other mimics, it assumes the appearance of a predator to scare away attackers, but unlike any other creature, it can mimic the appearance of a huge variety of predators. It appears to determine the most threatening thing to the creature it is trying to scare, and then assumes the appearance of that creature. It has been reliably observed recognizably mimicking creatures as diverse as sea snakes, giant crabs, flatfish, jellyfish, mantis shrimp and starfish. Imagine, this one animal, believably masquerading as a sea snake one minute, then appearing to be a lionfish, the next.

This has never been seen before – no other creature can pretend to be one of a variety of other animals at will. Many animals have developed the ability to mimic other thing to camouflage themselves, either for defensive or for more sinister reasons. Animals, both above and below water, use camouflage every day for a variety of purposes. Probably the most common is to avoid predators. There are three main types that we can easily see:

Coloration: The animal uses the color of its skin to blend in with the surroundings. Simple examples of this type of camouflage, well known to most of us, would be the stick insect, or even the tiger (which blends imperceptibly into the forest background when stalking its prey). The most famous example of coloration camouflage is the chameleon. It uses dynamic (i.e. changing) coloration to blend in completely yet retain range of movement. Underwater, this same technique is used by Flounder, and by the Stonefish.

Countershading: This type of camouflage is observed most easily underwater, and is demonstrated beautifully by the most famous fish of all – the shark. Look at any picture of a shark, notice the darker grey on top, and the paler belly beneath. This shade pattern allows the shark to be almost invisible from above, looking down into the depths, or from below, looking up, towards the light.

Mimicry: The ability of one animal to resemble another. Many harmless animals have developed the appearance of other poisonous, or dangerous, creatures in order to avoid predators. Butterflies have eyes on their wings, so that when they open them a predator may be fooled into thinking they have encountered an owl. Many harmless snakes have evolved the same coloration as their poisonous cousins. Stonefish pretend to be stones, and lie in wait for unsuspecting prey.

Octopoi are very well adapted for camouflage. They have no rigid bones to constrain their shape. Their skin can change color, texture and pattern depending on stimuli, frequently to confuse a predator whilst making a rapid retreat. The Mimic Octopus has been seen, and filmed, morphing between different creatures whilst gradually making its way back to the safety of its lair.

The Mimic is normally a drab brownish octopus with very long arms. It can grow as big as 60 centimeters from arm tip to arm tip (so far, as I say, it is only newly discovered, we don’t yet know that much about it). Its normal behavior is to gradually creep across the ocean floor, probing small holes with the tips of its tentacles.

When attacked by damselfish, though, the octopus retreats into a hole, extends two tentacles out of the hole, and takes on the coloration and the shape of a banded sea snake, a common damselfish predator. The only times that this sea snake mimicry has been observed is in response to damselfish attacks, and the same creatures that exhibited this ability have also been seen flattening themselves to the floor of the ocean, and drawing in their tentacles, until they appear almost exact replicas of flat fish. Really the only way to truly appreciate to marvels of this creature is to see the pictures for yourself – several of the most astounding examples can be seen in Reef Life, by Denise Nielsen Tackett and Larry.

The magnificently named Wonderpus photogenicus (Wonderpus) has also been seen to exhibit this sea snake mimicry. It is a genetically distinct species from the Mimic Octopus, though they are often confused – possibly because they are both long-armed octopi that have only been recently adequately classified and described. The easiest way to tell the two apart is to look at the color pattern – the mimic is dark brown, with creamish indistinct spots (mottling), whereas Wonderpus is distinctly reddish in color, with clearly defined cream spots and bars. Wonderpus is an incredibly attractive creature, and a favorite of underwater photographers – hence the great name.

So: two completely new species, discovered in our waters, in the past 10 years. That they have been discovered now is due to the spread of dive centers, diver explorers and to technological advances in underwater photography. They live in extremely distinct habitats – shallow silt and sand floors off river mouths. These creatures are incredibly rare – the length of time that it took to classify them is mainly due to the scarcity of specimens. Their natural habitat is threatened by coastal runoff and development. Neither species is suitable for aquariums.

Whether because we simply don’t know enough about what they need to stay alive, or due to abhorrent and illegal collection methods (like cyanide), one thing should be remembered above all about these newly discovered creatures: We have only just met them, and they are already threatened. In captivity, they do not survive.

The writer is sales manager of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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