Color-Changing Octopus Skin Inspires New Camouflage Tech

Octopus-inspired camouflage
Now you see me: Researchers used their octopus-inspired camouflage material to spell out the letters "U o I" (University of Illinois). (Image credit: Cunjiang Yu et al.)

Octopuses and squid possess the amazing ability to blend in with their surroundings, but now, researchers have created a man-made system that mimics this form of camouflage.

The team developed flexible sheets of light sensors, containing a temperature-sensitive dye, that can automatically sense and adapt to the color of their surroundings. The technology could have consumer, industrial and military applications, according to the study, published today (Aug. 18) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"These devices are capable of producing black-and-white patterns that spontaneously match those of the surroundings, without user input or external measurement," the researchers wrote in the paper. [See video of octopus-inspired camouflage]

Octopuses and squid are members of a group known as cephalopods, marine animals that have bilaterally symmetric bodies, large heads and arms or tentacles derived from the soft foot of a mollusk. These creatures have developed sophisticated forms of camouflage to conceal themselves, communicate, hunt and reproduce. Recently, scientists have come to understand how these animals perform these vanishing acts on an organ and cellular level.

In the study, researchers from the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created cephalopod-inspired materials that can sense and move in order to blend in with their surroundings. They developed flexible sheets consisting of color-changing elements on top of a white reflective surface with moving devices and light sensors. The color-changing parts contain dyes that change from opaque to colorless in response to temperatures above 117 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius).

The color-changing elements act like chromatophores, the tiny pigment-containing and light-reflecting organs in cephalopods. The reflective background is like leucophores (white chromatophores found in some cephalopod species); the motors act like the muscles that control the chromatophores; and the light sensor acts like structures that contain opsins, which are light-sensitive receptors involved in vision.

The researchers tested their camouflage material, showing it was able to adapt to changing patterns of light in its surroundings within 1 to 2 seconds, the scientists said. The researchers also programmed the material to produce a variety of black-and-white patterns, including one that spelled the letters "U o I" (for University of Illinois).

Systems like this one could lead to adaptive camouflage technology that can be tuned to its environment, and integrated into electronics for a variety of applications, from military to industrial uses, the researchers said.

Editor's Note: If you have an amazing animal camouflage photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Jeanna Bryner at

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.