WHENEVER THE FLAMBOYANT CUTTLEFISH MAKES ITS ENTRANCE, it does so with flair, a walking cuttlefish that lives up to its diva-like street name. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium, which breeds them, describes them as “the flamenco dancers of the cuttlefish world.”
Small and rare, flamboyants (Metasepia pferreri) are singular among cephalopods in that they live on (or hover near) the ocean bottom. They’re the only walking cuttlefish, moving along the seafloor on arms and fins. As most sources see it, they’re creatures of the muck environment, hanging out on muddy, sandy and broken rubble substrates.
THE WALKING CUTTLEFISH: VIVID COLOR, & TOXIC
Also, flamboyant cuttlefish are the only cuttlefish whose flesh is highly poisonous. The toxin is similar to the one with which with which the blue ringed octopus kills with a bite. But M. pfefferi’s poison resides in its flesh. Its bite isn’t poisonous but having one for dinner is a bad choice. Also, in your home aquarium.
CUTTLEFISHES AT LARGE
Cuttlefishes worldwide, some 120 species spread the coasts of Asia, Africa, Australia and western Europe. None are found in the Americas. The largest is generally considered to be the giant Australian cuttlefish (Sepia apama), about 20 in/50 cm in length. It’s endemic to the southern coasts of Australia. Among the smallest are the crinoid cuttlefish, no more than 1.5 in/4 cm in length. It’s found in Indonesia.
The common European cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), about 12 inches at its largest, ranges as far north as the English Channel, through the Mediterranean Sea, and along the Atlantic coast of Africa down to South Africa.
Our flamboyant cuttlefish friend grows to 3.25 in/8 cm in length. It’s found in areas of the western Pacific from the Philippines to Australia.
Like all their cephalopod cousins – octopuses, squids and chambered nautiluses – cuttlefishes are adorned with long arms surrounding strong, beak-like jaws that they use to rip apart their usual prey of small fishes, mollusks, crabs and shrimps.
Cuttlefishes augment octopuses’ eight arms with two tentacles used specifically for catching prey. Cuttlefish capture prey by whipping their tentacles out to ensnare their targets, using their arms to help move it towards its mouth.
BRAINY, SHARP-EYED, COLOR COORDINATED
Cephalopods are also famous for their smarts, with highly developed nervous systems. The brain-to-body-size ratio among cuttlefishes in particular is one of the largest among invertebrates. Combined with this, our cuttlefish companions are renowned for eyesight rivaling us humans – and looking at the world though W-shaped pupils. They’re actually colorblind but perceive polarized light waves that we cannot see.
And, they’re famous for their color and body texture camouflage techniques, working their chromatophores to amazing effects at speed faster than in chameleons. The color thing also has a role in communicating. Like other cephalopods, they’re also famous for their ink-squirting, jetting-away escape techniques.
FLAMBOYANTS: THE WALKING CUTTLEFISH
Where cuttlefishes as a whole are great at manipulating coloration and patterns, M. pfefferi’ take the color game up a notch. Often muted browns and whites during calm times they show a particularly dramatic flair when disturbed or excited. Or, apparently, anticipating a meal.
As the Monterrey Bay Aquarium explains it, “Unlike other cuttlefish species, the flamboyant cuttlefish doesn’t dart away when threatened. It remains stationary, flashes its hypnotic color scheme and pulses its fins.”
They’re remarkable in their movements. Active during daytime, they can swim but they typically “amble along” on their lower arms and fins on mucky bottoms.
They can flaunt themselves in the daytime because their intense coloration may have another purpose: Advertising that their flesh harbors that poisonous toxin. Many sources accept this, although Monterrey Bay Aquarium suggests that it’s a flamboyant bluff, that recent research “hasn’t found evidence to support the claim.”
MAKING MORE WALKING CUTTLEFISH
The Monterrey Bay Aquarium can claim a particular strength regarding flamboyant cuttlefish: It breeds M. pfefferi in captivity. Their abundance in the wild isn’t clear but they seem somewhat rare. Monterrey Bay Aquarium has succeeded in breeding them, having cultured and given away more than 1,000 cuttlefishes to other institutions.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: “Flamboyant Cuttlefish Hunting Shrimpy Prey!”, Monterrey Bay Aquarium; “Metasepia pfefferi,” The Cephalopod Page; Reef Creature Identification, Tropical Pacific, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Field Guide, Gerald Allen, Roger Steene; “Flamboyant cuttlefishes, Lembeh Strait, Indonesia,” marinebio.org; “Metasepia pfefferi,” Encyclopedia of Life; “Metasepia pfefferi,” “Common Cuttlefish,” Wikipedia.org.