The Talented Mimic Octopus

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

The latest episode of Shelf Life traces the travels of the Museum’s specimen of one of the most iconic animals in the world’s oceans, the giant squid. But incredible as these huge creatures are, they’re just one of an amazing class of invertebrates known as cephalopods. The Museum is teaming with Science Friday for Cephalopod Week to celebrate a few of these fascinating animals, including one highlighted in the Life at the Limits exhibition: the mimic octopus.

Rendering of a striped mimic octopus.
5W infographics-P.Velasco/© AMNH

Discovered in 1998, the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) is a 2-foot long species that can parrot not just one but several toxic sea creatures. It’s the first animal of any kind known to shift between multiple imitations, a talent called dynamic mimicry.

Depending on which predator is around, this cephalopod adjusts its posture by folding, splaying, or hiding its arms to copy the shape, texture, and motions of the banded sole, lionfish, or banded sea snake—three toxic animals that all share its light and dark coloring and striped patterns.

© AMNH/5W infographics-P.Velasco 

 Folding its arms behind its head, the mimic octopus moves its body in the manner of a swimming banded sole, a poisonous flatfish.

© AMNH/5W infographics-P.Velasco 

Lionfishes’ long banded spines are beautiful and toxic, releasing a venom when they puncture the skin of predator or prey. To imitate this fish, the octopus splays its arms. 

drawings of octopus and sea snake, to show comparative behavior
© AMNH/5W infographics-P.Velasco 

To impersonate a venomous marine sea snake, the octopus pulls six of its arms out of sight, then stretches the remaining two in opposite directions.

Scientists have also observed behaviors suggesting these cephalopods have an even bigger repertoire, and may be able to mimic anemones and jellyfish as well. 

In 2011, researchers discovered that the mimic octopus has its own copycat—the harlequin jawfish (Stalix histrio), which sticks close to the octopus and blends in with the coloration of its arms to avoid detection while swimming outside of its burrow. The jawfish camouflages itself so adeptly, you may even have missed it in the image at the top of this post!

A mimic octopus whose skin pattern conceals a small fish.
© AMNH/5W infographics-P.Velasco 

See more amazing cephalopods, including live nautilus, in the special exhibition Life at the Limits: Stories of Amazing Species.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring issue of our Member magazine Rotunda.