The Science Behind Why The Octopus Can See Through Its Skin

A new research confirms earlier speculation on certain species of octopus can see with their skin, as reported by Discovery News.

The Science Behind Why The Octopus Can See Through Its SkinThe sensory perception isn’t as keen as actual eyesight, but the study–published in the Journal of Experimental Biology–presents the first evidence that octopus skin can detect light using the same light-sensitive proteins (opsins) found in eyes. The octopus can even do this without input from its central nervous system.

The discovery proves yet again how remarkable these cephalopods are, as octopi are already known as being some of the world’s most intelligent and mobile marine creatures.

These clever octopus can change color thanks to the specialized cells called chromatophores, which are packed in their thousands just beneath the skin surface.The Science Behind Why The Octopus Can See Through Its SkinEach of these cells contains an elastic sac of pigmented granules surrounded by a ring of muscle, which relax or contract when commanded by nerves extending directly from the brain, making the color inside more or less visible.

The Science Behind Why The Octopus Can See Through Its Skin

Octopus skin doesn’t sense light in the same amount of detail as the animal does when it uses its eyes and brain. But it can sense an increase or change in light. Its skin is not detecting contrast and edge, but rather brightness,” according to lead author Desmond Ramirez of the University of California at Santa Barbara, in a press release.

During one part of the experiment, Ramirez shined white light on a sample of skin from a California two-spot octopus. This caused chromatophores, or pigmented organs in the skin, to expand and change color. Without light, the chromatophores relaxed and the skin returned to its original hue.

Ramirez explained that this reaction suggests light sensors are connected to the chromatophores, permitting an appropriate response without input from the brain or eyes.

The Science Behind Why The Octopus Can See Through Its SkinThe researchers further discovered a compound called rhodopsin, usually produced in the eye, within the octopus skin. It likely helps the skin to detect different wavelengths of light, from violet to orange. For some reason, blue light really gets a strong response, perhaps because the marine environment of the octopus is often blue-hued.

We’ve discovered new components of this really complex behavior of octopus camouflage. It looks like the existing cellular mechanism for light detection in octopus eyes, which has been around for quite some time, has been co-opted for light sensing in the animal’s skin,” said co-author Todd Oakley.

The skin of other animals, including humans, has some light-detecting abilities too. Prior research, for example, determined that human skin can “see” ultraviolet light. This obviously doesn’t promote immediate camouflage, as for the octopus, but it does help to trigger tanning, which is a protective response meant to prevent skin damage.


via Discovery News and The Guardian

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