Program in Sensory Physiology and Behavior


What could a device like the Amazon Kindle possibly have in common with a cuttlefish?

Both depend on reflective surfaces to vividly communicate information.  For tablets and other e-devices, synthetic reflective e-paper is used to deliver the best available display technology for users.  For cuttlefish and their relatives, squid and octopus, (all of which belong to class of animals called cephalopods), their remarkable skin provides natural reflectivity with very efficient manipulation of available light. This enables their adaptive coloration for communication or camouflage with a speed and diversity unparalleled in the animal kingdom.

Credit: Lisa Ventre, University of Cincinnati

A new paper from MBL biologists Lydia Mäthger and Roger Hanlon and material scientists from the University of Cincinnati, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Army Research Laboratory examines the parallels between e-Paper technology (the technology behind sunlight-readable devices like the Kindle) and the mechanisms of adaptive coloration in cephalopods.

The researchers note that while the basic approach for color change is similar in techie devices and in nature, humanity has never developed anything as complex or sophisticated as the biology and physics of cephalopod skin.

With their collaboration, the scientists propose three hopeful outcomes for the interdisciplinary community: that reflective display engineers may gain new insights from millions of years of natural selection and evolution; that biologists will benefit from understanding the types of mechanisms, characterization, and metrics used in synthetic reflective e-Paper; and that all scientists will gain a clearer picture of the long-term prospects for capabilities such as adaptive concealment and signaling.

Dancing Woods Hole squid skin became an Internet sensation this week in the form of “Insane in the Chromatophores,” a bass-thumping music video by Greg Gage of Backyard Brains, who made it while visiting the MBL to lecture in two summer neuroscience courses.

In its first week online (8/23-30), “Insane” racked up more than 1.3 million hits and reached #1 on YouTube’s “most popular videos” chart, and was picked up by nearly 100 media outlets and blogs, from Time Magazine to MSN to Discovery Magazine.

Using hip-hop music pumped out of his iPod, Gage sent electrical current into the squid’s fin, which caused its nerve cells to fire and the skin’s shimmery red, brown, and yellow pigment organs to muscularly expand and contract in rhythm with the song’s booming bass.

He then recorded the dancing chromatophores using an 8x microscope and posted the video on the Internet, which responded with, “Wow!”

The unexpected hit came about like many an MBL collaboration: serendipitously. Gage, whose Background Brains is devoted to bringing neuroscience to children and the masses, had previously done a similar experiment with an iPod and a cockroach, which he performed for a TED audience. What would happen if he pumped the iPod’s current into squid skin, Gage wondered? While in the MBL’s Marine Resources Center attempting to capture a squid from a tank (not an easy thing to do), MBL squid expert Roger Hanlon happened to walk in the room, saw Gage struggling, and offered to help. The two started talking, and Hanlon introduced Gage to a post-doc in his lab, Paloma Gonzalez-Bellido. She had just the squid-skin prep Gage needed, as she and fellow post-docs Trevor Wardill and Robyn Crook had developed it for a study of squid skin iridescence (published by the Royal Society on August 15).

“Insane in the Chromatophores” gave a huge – and colorful — boost to the visibility of this Hanlon lab research. Another spin-off is a new, ongoing collaboration between one of the MBL Methods in Computational Neuroscience class students, Emily Machevicius of MIT, and the Hanlon lab, using similar videos of electrophysiologically stimulated skin preps. “We might consider this the first ‘summer course/resident research lab’ interaction this summer under the aegis of the Program in Sensory Physiology and Behavior,” Hanlon says. “Thanks to Greg Gage for making it happen!” (Gage is an alumnus of the MBL’s Neural Systems and Behavior (2010) and Neuroinfomatics (2005) courses).

(Note on the music video: This song, like many hip-hop songs, contains explicit language. Parental guidance suggested. “Hip-hop was required as classical music lacks the bass,” Gage noted.)

Nerves in red can be easily traced among the distinctive chromatophores and iridophores that they innervate. Credit: Wardill, Gonzalez-Bellido, Crook & Hanlon, Proc Royal Soc B

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