In the July-August 2021 issue of The Lampstand we ran an article on the marvellous octopus. In this article we are going to go one stage further and talk about the mimic octopus.

Discovered in 1988 off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia, this species ranges from north-east Australia (Lizard Island), through New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, to the north of the Philippines, as well as inhabiting areas near the Red Sea.

It lives in environments that are empty of corals and other structures, such as shallow coastal water estuaries, and there it feeds on worms, crabs and shrimps. Its first line of defence is to forage by crawling along the soft bottom in drab brown colours to match its surrounding murky environment.

But it is its second line of defence that is amazing. The mimic octopus gets its name by its strong ability to mimic or impersonate other sea creatures. By contorting its arms and changing colour, this unique master of disguise can mimic the physical likeness and movements of more than fifteen different species, including sea snakes, lionfish, flatfish, brittle stars, giant crabs, seashells, stingrays, flounders, jellyfish, sea anemones, and mantis shrimp. Such mimicry allows it to swim in the open with relatively little fear of predators. It is also able to imitate a crab’s mate and then by luring other crabs to its side, preys on them. It can also use its tentacles to imitate a poisonous fish-eating anemone, or quickly imitate a poisonous lionfish which keeps other fish away.

When using jet propulsion to move faster, this species positions its arms to attain a flatfish shape and uses swimming behaviours similar to those of a flatfish (swimming durations, swimming speeds, and undulating body movements). In combination with a drab colour, this octopus mimics non-toxic flounders and soles that a predatory fish may pass-up because they are difficult to eat.

The mimic octopus has been reported mimicking visually conspicuous toxic animals through a high-contrast body pattern (dark brown and light cream) as well as emulating the postures or behaviours of these predators perfectly. Through flatfish swimming and high-contrast pattern, the mimic imitates the toxic flatfish (Pardachirus pavoninus and Zebrias spp).

This species has also been observed swimming just above the sea-floor with arms trailing from the body, mimicking a poisonous lionfish (Pterois spp) with banded arms. To scare-off fishes, such as territorial damselfishes (Amphiprion spp), the mimic octopus threaded six arms down its hole and raised two banded, curled and undulated arms in opposite directions. This mimicked the appearance of the venomous banded sea-snake (Laticauda sp). This feature highlights seemingly intelligent decisions about which fish to copy. How did it know that if it was attacked by a damselfish it needed to mimic the banded sea snake which is known to hunt damselfish?

The mimic octopus was also observed sitting on top of sand mounds and raising all its arms above the body, each arm being held in a zigzag form. This may imitate large sand anemones (such as Megalactis spp) that have stinging cells (cnidocytes).

A large female mimic octopus (arm span 600mm) was spotted swimming to the surface from a depth of 4 metres. Once at the surface, the octopus slowly sank while undulating its arms. This behaviour mirrors that of jellyfish which are found in the area.

So in addition to all the marvellous complexities of being an octopus we can add some further specialised attributes. How could a blind series of accidents produce an accurate sensor array which constantly feeds information to the animal that allows it to immediately decide which predator it needs to copy? And where did it get this capacity to imitate the look and movement and behaviour of these predators if these predators were themselves in various stages of evolution?

This octopus needs to take into account the offensive and defensive capability of each predator as well as which animal is its natural enemy so that its imitation has the most likelihood of being a successful deterrent.

But if all of that is amazing, another remarkable discovery was made in 2011. In the same habitat lives the jawfish, which is noted for spending most of its adult life close to a sand burrow, where it will quickly retreat upon sighting a predator.

During a diving trip in Indonesia in July 2011, Godehard Kopp of the University of Gottingen, Germany, filmed an unexpected pairing between the jawfish and the mimic octopus. The black-marble jawfish was seen closely following the octopus as it moved across the sandy bottom. The jawfish had brown-and-white markings almost identical to the octopus and was difficult to spot among the many arms. The octopus, for its part, did not seem to notice or care.

This was a unique, previously unobserved case in the reefs not only because the model for the jawfish is a mimic itself, but also because this is the first case of a jawfish involved in mimicry. How then did the jawfish develop its mimicry to match an octopus that changes patterns regularly? How would it know which pattern to copy and how did that patterning develop through its genes for the benefit of future generations?

Evolution has no answer to these questions. The only rational alternative is that there is a far greater power which has made all these wonders for us to marvel at. We know that this higher power is none other than the Creator of all things, whom we extol and praise for His greatness towards the sons of men.