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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#548: Not Too Flamboyant for My Taste

I thought for this week's column I'd head back to the Philippines. Well, not literally... it's still warm enough to dive here in the kelp forests although I may well head there again this winter, or the Red Sea or South America or... I just wanted to focus on another of the amazing critters I observed and filmed there last spring. This week we're going to look at the flamboyant cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi. The word flamboyant comes from the French meaning "waving curves suggesting flames" or "strikingly elaborate or colorful display or behavior" according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The flamboyant cuttlefish occurs in the tropical Indo-Pacific including northern Australia, southern New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. I found it interesting that the specimen from which the species was described was captured during the Challenger expedition of 1872–76, considered by many to be the first truly scientific expedition. The HMS Challenger covered 70,000 nautical miles and catalogued nearly 4,000 species new to man (well, at least to western man since the natives in those regions probably knew many of them). I used to sit in the library of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and read an original copy of the Report Of The Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76.

When I first saw and filmed this species, I thought it looked something like a miniature elephant flashing bands of brilliant color. Rather than swim, it crawled along the bottom with its broad, blade-like arms. It is the only species of cuttlefish that walks along the bottom since it can only float in the water column for brief periods of time. Flamboyant cuttlefish frequent sandy or muddy bottoms in water from three to nearly 300 feet.

Most sources indicate individuals grow to a maximum size of just over three inches, but others state twice that. Females are larger than males. The one I saw was somewhere in between this range. They have eight broad, blade-like arms. Coloration is highly variable since this species utilizes camouflage to stalk its prey and avoid predators. The base color is dark brown, but they can flash waves of highly variable patterns involving black, brown, white, purple and yellow when threatened. Color change can be nearly instantaneous since it is controlled by nerves which cause muscles to contract or expand, varying the amount of underlying pigment that is exposed..

Like other cephalopods, this species has three hearts... two to pump blood to the gills and one to pump it through the rest of the body. The blood is green in color since it is copper- rather than iron-based. Some have said I am heartless, but at least I'm a red blooded American male!

Flamboyant cuttlefish feed during the day on small fish and crustaceans such as shrimp. Individuals use slender feeding tentacles which shoot out from the region of the mouth very quickly, reminding me of a chameleon or a frog feeding using its tongue. The shafts of these arms are smooth but they are tipped with relatively large suckers to grasp prey. It is then drawn back and transferred to the other arms. The beak-like mouth then tears it into smaller pieces using a rough tongue-like structure known as a radula. I learned that the esophagus runs through the center of the ring-shaped brain, and that if the ingested food is too big, it could damage the brain as it passes through... so these critters must only eat the appropriate "brain food."

The arm tips often exhibit a red color which is believed to be used to ward off predators. Another form of defense is their highly toxic flesh, said to be as poisonous as that of the deadly blue-ring octopus. This helps explain why this species is not "fished" commercially. In addition specialists in the aquarium trade suggest they not be kept in home tanks.

The end of the left ventral arm in males is modified into the hectocotylus. Males use this structure to inseminate the female, passing the sperm packet into a cavity under the mantle. They mate face-to-face, no Kama Sutra for them. Once the female fertilizes the eggs, she places them individually in crevices, under ledges and in other protected areas. The fresh, white eggs slowly become translucent and then hatch into young which are capable of color changes just like mommy and daddy.

The derivation of the word cuttlefish may help explain the use of "fish" in critters such as starfish and jellyfish. According to one source, the word "fische" in Dutch or German originally meant any animal that lived in the sea or was caught in a fishing net. Now during my Harvard marine biology class freshman year, we dredged Boston Harbor for marine life and came up with a boot and a tire. I guess I can call them bootfish and tirefish then, can't I?

© 2013 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Flamboyant cuttlefish walking on bottom; and extending feeding tentacles.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2013 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia