The “mimicking miracle octopus” earns its weighty name. This new-to-science cephalopod, found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific, is a master impersonator, taking on the appearance and behavior of venomous or bad-tasting creatures to foil would-be predators.
What’s most unusual is the range of the mimic octopus’s repertoire: Most animal mimics impersonate just one animal—the mimic octopus impersonates several, and can switch between them rapidly.
Protection When Feeding
Like other mimics, the octopus changes its coloring to disguise itself. More unusually, it can also contort its body to take on the appearance and behavior of several animals, including the lionfish, jellyfish, sea snake, a shrimp, a crab, and others.
To mimic the sea snake, for example, the octopus tucks into a hole, sticking just two arms out (that display black bands) and rippling them in opposite directions, mimicking a snake’s movement. Even more remarkably, the cephalopod only takes the form of a sea snake when bothered by damselfish—who are preyed on by sea snakes.
The need for mimicry as protection may come from when and how the mimic octopus feeds. It forages in broad daylight, foraging on open sand flats, where it’s exposed and vulnerable, for crustaceans and fish. At night, it hides in a burrow.
During mating, the males hold onto the females and use their mating arm, called a hectocotylus, to insert a sperm sac, called a spermatophore, into the main body, or the mantle, of the female. The sac is placed in a holding area for a few months later when the female lays its eggs, which have been fertilized by the sperm in the packet on their way out of the female’s body. The male dies a few months after mating and the female dies a short time after laying eggs.
The mimic octopus was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Most sightings have come from that country, though it’s been spotted as far afield as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.