Oval Squids Use Colors and Patterns to Speak the Language of Love

Squids may not have catcalls, but they can signal to potential mates in another way — through brilliant changes to the color of their skin. Take that, peacocks.

Voyeurism in the Name of Science

Researchers in Taiwan spent time studying the mating habits of the oval squid, or Sepioteuthis lessoniana, and published their results in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Their findings? The oval squid use color-containing cells called chromatophores to paint lines, spots, and stripes on their skin as a way to communicate with one another.

Researchers were able to spot these color changes in two ways: in the wild, by setting up a "home" made of bamboo branches and leaves in which a female oval squid could hatch her eggs over the course of three months; and in captivity, by rearing adult squids in a large indoor aquarium for two months. During this time, the researchers observed distinct color changes in both males and females: for instance, a female squid may produce a dark pattern on her skin to indicate that she's not feeling a male's romantic overtures. Or, when two males get into a fight over a good-looking lady, the winner may put on a strong visual display to show his success.

Female squids turn their skin a darker color when they're rejecting a male's advances.

A Language Not Limited by Sounds

The study shows how squids' body patterns actually serve as a form of language for the animals, expressing unique information between them. Each chromatic component is associated with multiple different behaviors, "similar to a typical language within which individual words often have multiple meanings, but when they appeared together with other words, the message becomes unequivocal," the researchers explained.

The researchers compiled their findings into a sort of squid translation manual known as an ethogram. That will help us not only understand communication in oval squids, but someday in other species as well. Still, researchers aren't yet certain how squids perceive the patterns on other squids' skin, and how they choose their visual response. Scientists will need to do more research to determine exactly how this language of color works.

You're Not Hallucinating—That's Just Squid Skin

Key Facts In This Video

  1. Most cephalopods lack external shells, and use their color-changing abilities to camouflage themselves for defense. 00:46

  2. Some squid have light-reflecting cells called iridophores that can make their skin more or less iridescent. 01:23

  3. Color changing in squids might be analogous to breathing in humans: a process that can be both controlled and automatic. 02:25

Written by Stephanie Bucklin May 15, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.