One of nature’s great truisms is that cephalopods aren’t known for their senses of humor. Indeed, cephalopods are often so bereft of joy that their friends worry about them and try extra hard to get them to come out to parties while secretly hoping they still stay home, where they won’t bum everyone else out too. So when a team of scientists working in Indonesia documented an octopus that does impressions to avoid predation, they just knew they were on to something. It was way back in October of 1998 that the intrepid research team of Norman, Finn et al, donned their diving gear, reluctantly paid the two-drink minimum cover charge, and sat through a painfully awful ventriloquist act before they were treated to the main attraction, Thaumoctopus mimicus, which you may know by its stage/common name, ‘The Mimic Octopus.’
Despite repeated warnings about the use of flash photography, the researchers recorded more than six hours of video footage of the mimic octopus doing a pretty tight set. It is now believed this nutty cephalopod can change the color and shape of its body to impersonate up to fifteen different marine animals, including flatfish, lionfish, sea stars, brittle stars, sea snakes, Al Gore, giant crabs, sea anemones, Jack Nicholson, jellyfish, John Madden, and stingrays. Currently, the mimic octopus is working on a Rodney Dangerfield. It calls the Indo-Malayan archipelago home and probably remained anonymous for so long because divers in the area were fooled into thinking they were looking at Jay Leno.
Like Saturday Night Live, evolution has produced groups of animals that employ impersonation as a survival strategy. There’s the Katydid bug, who looks like a leaf; the Stick Bug, who does a dead-on impression of inanimate wood (down to the subtle mannerisms); and a host of other innocuous creatures that can appear to be a more dangerous/venomous animal. There are also many cephalopods that use camouflage and mimicry to impersonate rocks and coral, which explains the heavy dosage of rock-and coral-impersonators on The South China Sea’s Got Talent.
But what makes the mimic octopus unique is that it’s the only animal known to science that employs dynamic mimicry, meaning it has a repertoire of various impressions and can toggle between them at will, depending on the situation, or to deal with hecklers.
For example, scientists noted that when the mimic octopus was attacked by damselfish, the octo-legged entertainer jumped straight into its sea snake character by burying six of its legs in the sand and extending the remaining two horizontally across the ocean floor and changing their color so the legs appeared yellow and banded and snake-esque. The banded sea snake is widely-known to prey on damselfish, which means that the mimic octopus understands this at some semi-conscious level. In other words, welcome to Spookyville. Please enjoy your stay.
For other predators, the mimic octopus may do a sea anemone or a venomous lion fish. Or, when it observes an aging predator, the mimic octopus distracts it with the vocal stylings of Perry Como. The mimic octopus knows its audience, which is why it is known as ‘The Hardest Working Octopus in Evolutionary Biology Show Business.’
Here’s the problem: Although dynamic mimicry in the animal kingdom is downright thrilling to scientists who spend most of their time working with tedious sea urchins and even more tedious scientists, it does very little to impress normal people who are used to being around the 2-3 guys at the office who can do decent Christopher Walken and William Shatner impressions. And, like those guys, the mimic octopus is almost always ‘on.’ Even when scooting across the ocean floor looking for food, or standing around the microwave waiting for a frozen burrito, it does so goofing on a flatfish or a stingray. Enough already.
Look, we all get that Thaumoctopus mimicus is trying to make a living down there, but if it can’t turn off the improv faucet and just be itself in front of the underwater research cameras, it’s going to become the Robin Williams of the sea. And to anyone with the slightest sense of propriety or taste, that is never a good thing.
You’ve been a great audience. I’ll leave you with my lionfish/loud Southern guy character! Thank you! Good night!’