Thursday, May 24, 2012

Winning at hide and seek in the mesopelagic

A paper published a few months ago in Current Biology serves to highlight just how amazing cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish, octopus and their kin) are. The paper concerns how two species of cephalopods (Japetella heathi an octopus and Onychoteuthis banksii a squid) have evolved to avoid predators in the dynamic light environment of the mesopelagic layer of the open ocean.

The mesopelagic layer of the ocean extends from 200 meters to 1000 meters deep. Sunlight in this zone transitions from present, but too dim for photosynthesis at the top, to totally absent at the bottom. This light transition poses a tricky problem for animals living there that want to avoid being eaten.

In the shallower parts of the mesopelagic, predators are able to detect the shadows of prey swimming overhead. Here, the best strategy for small animals to reduce the risk of being eaten is for them to be translucent. Tissues that allow light to pass through cast a weaker shadow, which means that predators have to get closer to their prey in order to see them.

In the deep dark depths, translucence is not such a good strategy. There's not enough sunlight for predators to hunt for shadows. Some predators, though, bring their own light in the form of light organs near their eyes. In the directed light of bioluminescence small imperfections in light transmission cause the light to be scattered making translucent animals much brighter than the background and easy prey.

Where some predators, like the headlight fish (Diaphus effulgens), hunt by producing their own light, it pays to be a colour that absorbs light at the same wavelengths. The vast majority of bioluminescent organisms produce light in the blue wavelengths, which is best absorbed by reds and blacks. Unsurprisingly then, most animals that occur where sunlight is absent are red or black to reduce the risk that predators will find them using biologically produced light.

But, some animals, like our two species of cephalopod, range over most of the mesopelagic and encounter a wide variety of light environments. High on the wish list for such animals would be the ability to become translucent in diffuse sunlight and red in directed bioluminescent light. And it turns out that this is exactly what J. heathi and O. banksii can do.

Like most cephalopods, J. heathi and O. banksii have pigment containing cells in their epidermis, known as chromatophores. Cephalopods are able to rapidly change colour by expanding the size of the chromatophores. When muscles attached to a chromatophore contract, the pigment containing sac inside stretches out into a flat disc, which increases the visible area of pigment by about 50 times.

A diagram showing the structure of a cephalopod chromatophore and the arrangement of the associated muscle and nerve cells (image: Richard Young)
Most of the time J. heathi and O. banksii are translucent, but when they are exposed to blue light, like that produced by bioluminescent organs, they rapidly change colour to red. Neither strategy is complete; the chromatophores reduce translucence even when contracted and they are not numerous enough to allow them to become totally red. Thus, I would guess that these cephalopods are at a disadvantage relative to organisms that specialize in being red or translucent. But, in contrast to the these cephalopods, such specialists would be limited in the light environments that they could use.

The translucent and red forms of J. heathi (left) and O. banksii (right). Note that neither the translucent nor the red strategy are complete (image constructed from figures in the paper)

Interestingly, the images seem to suggest that J. heathi, which has the deeper distribution, is more able to produce the red colouration that is advantageous where predators hunt using bioluminescence. The authors, however, do not test or discuss this possibility. In the article they do briefly mention that older J. heathi are more common at deeper depths and have greater chromatophore coverage. So, the apparent difference in chromatophore coverage between the two species could be a consequence of either age or depth distribution differences, or perhaps both.

Zylinski, S., & Johnsen, S. (2011). Mesopelagic cephalopods switch between transparency and pigmentation to optimize camouflage in the deep Current Biology, 21 (22), 1937-1941 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.014

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