Tuesday, 29 November 2011

DECEMBER 5th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 5th: Cuttlefish

Often at Christmas or the festive period in general, there will be mention of some sort of animal with bizarre or even magical properties. Robins that can summon the end of the season of Winter, reindeer that can fly and seemingly violate multiple laws of time and space, sheep that are able to look after themselves if their herders decide to wander off and look at a messiah, donkeys that can carry a heavily pregnant woman for days on end, and Turkey’s that can seemingly resist being cooked no matter how long they spend in the oven.

But all of these are in the realm of fantasy (except the turkey one). What about animals that seemingly have miraculous properties while sticking to the laws of science? Well, one such incredible creature is the cuttlefish.
The cuttlefish is, for want of a better term, freakish (by human standards, of course). First off, it’s not even a fish, it’s a mollusc. So it’s practicing deception before we’ve even encountered it.

Anatomically, the cuttlefish is as alien and weird as you’d expect from a sea-bound invertebrate, but perhaps even more so. They have 8 arms and 2 tentacles (these are different things in cephalopod terms apparently, tentacles are longer and only have suckers on the tips, unlike arms which have them all along their length). So they have a choice of manipulative limbs, as opposed to our 2 crappy arms, which are both essentially the same.
They communicate via a very impressive ability to change the colour and polarisation of their skin via cromatophores, in ways that will leave a chameleon looking like about as impressive as a Windows ’95 screensaver. The detailed resolution they can achieve on their own skin can rival modern inkjet printers, making this an extremely sophisticated form of visual communication, which they can control. This is sort of like typing writing a text message by having to manipulate each individual pixel into the correct alignment. Anyone who’s ever had an etch a sketch for Christmas will know that humans aren’t really up to this level of manipulation.

In terms of visual communication using their own bodies, the best humans can do is sign language. But bear in mind, cuttlefish also use their skin patterning abilities to camouflage and avoid predators. This is like humans putting their hands over their eyes doing the ‘you can’t see me’ thing when under attack, and the attacker agreeing and going away.

Also worth pointing out, cuttlefish can turn their skin a wide variety of different patterns, but they can’t actually see colour. So how they know what they’re doing is anyone’s guess. They can see polarised light and we can’t though, so swings and roundabouts.

Cuttlefish are also highly intelligent, potentially poisonous, have way better eyes than we do and have multiple hearts and greenblood, the latter making them some sort of potential Time Lord/Vulcan amalgamation. Cuttlefish ink even led to the colour scheme of sepia. So every modern graphics programme and digital camera pays homage to the cuttlefish. Apple would kill for that level of influence.

All in all, it’s lucky they’re aquatic creatures and stuck in the sea, otherwise they’d be a real threat to humanity. It should be fine though, so long as humans don’t do anything stupid like raising the sea levels.

But why would Cuttlefish have a grudge against humans, what have we ever done to them? Sure, we eat them, but we eat everything, and they even eat each other, so that’s not something they can have a go at us for.

Well, it turns out that cuttlefish are also unique in nature for possessing a cuttlebone, a specialised rigid internal structure that allows a cuttlefish to control its buoyancy via complicated system of siphons. This cuttlebone used to be used to make jewellery and polish, sometimes in toothpaste. But these days, we use it primarily to provide calcium for caged birds.

Cuttlefish are some of the craziest, smartest, most capable organisms on Earth, and we slaughter them en masse so we can have slightly shiner teeth, and so our budgies don’t get brittle bones in those legs they rarely use. 

You know when you’ve gone to extreme lengths to create/acquire the most perfect, impressive or just downright spectacular Christmas present you can for someone? And they just shrug and throw it aside, but say they’ll use the box to keep their potatoes in or something? Imagine if they did that, but gleefully attacked you with a chainsaw to get the box from you.

That’s essentially what we do to cuttlefish on a daily basis. When they do rise up and kill us all, I can only hope they do it swiftly and mercifully.

Twitter: @garwboy


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