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10 Colorful Facts About Cuttlefish

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These masters of disguise are some of the most curious creatures of the sea. We talked to Senior Aquarist Chris Payne from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to find out more.

1. There are over 120 distinct species of cuttlefish.

They range from the brightly-colored tiny flamboyant cuttlefish—which tops out at 8 centimeters (3 inches)—to the giant cuttlefish, which can grow up to 52 centimeters (20 inches).

2. Cuttlefish can manually control their buoyancy.

A member of the cephalopod family, cuttlefish are among the most intelligent invertebrates. They spend their relatively short lives (a few years, max) in tropical and temperate oceans hunting for small prey and trying to avoid being eaten by larger carnivores. Smaller species tend to spend their whole lives on the floor of the ocean, searching for food and mates in a relatively limited range. But the larger species occasionally rise up into open water and swim in search of better territory.

To do so, these cuttlefish alter their internal buoyancy through the use of something called a cuttlebone, which isn't a bone but a porous internal shell. By adjusting levels of gas in the forward chamber and the level of water in the rear chamber of the cuttlebone—which isn't a particularly fast process—the cuttlefish can modulate its buoyancy and control where in the water column it will rest.

3. Baby cuttlefish and small adults use their arms to walk along the ocean floor.

Cuttlefish engaging in this odd behavior can "sometimes look like bulldogs with their arms pressed down and their backs arched," Payne says. He speculates that for smaller species, which don't swim long distances, "walking" like this allows them to move about without straying too far from the cover of sand.

4. They can change to be almost any color—even though they're colorblind.

Cuttlefish rely on their incredible camouflaging abilities to avoid predators, changing color almost instantaneously to match their surroundings—a pretty neat trick for an animal that's colorblind. Three different layers of cells expand and contract to saturate the visible skin with a different array of colors that can be rearranged on a small enough scale to mimic almost any background.

Scientists believe that even though cuttlefish are colorblind, they're able to see polarized light, which allows them to adjust to their surroundings. The video above from the New York Times Science Section explains a little more about how the color-changing process works.

5. They also mimic the shape and texture of objects around them to better hide.

Changing color is a nifty trick, but accurately replicating the shape and texture of the nearby coral or seaweed gives the cuttlefish an additional layer of camouflage. By extending and retracting individual papillae—tiny bumps across the cuttlefish's body—the animals can quickly and dramatically change the texture of their skin.

In addition to this, a 2011 study showed that cuttlefish can respond to visual clues to determine the optimal position for misleading mimicry. So if they're hiding near a particular plant, not only will they match it in color and texture, they'll also arrange their arms to best match the shape of the plant. Click here to see the mimicry in action.

6. Cuttlefish can see behind them.

An ability to accurately interpret visual stimuli around them for better camouflage is only part of the cuttlefish's impressive vision. They have distinct W-shaped pupils that allow them a wider horizontal range of vision, to the degree that they can see almost completely behind themselves.

Payne explains that just like people can shift the depth of their visual focus, cuttlefish can switch between forwards and backwards viewing. "If we’re trying to focus on something our lens might expand or contract, whereas they can just shift that front and back," he says.

7. Females can store multiple sperm packets, then select one for fertilizing.

A female cuttlefish likes to have options when it comes to selecting desirable genes for the next generation. During mating season, she'll play the field, taking on multiple sperm packets and storing them in her mouth cavity until she's comfortable enough to lay her eggs. Male cuttlefish know about this strategy, however, and they've developed a tactic of their own to counteract it: They'll initiate mating by shooting a jet stream of water into the female's mouth cavity to clear out sperm from previous males who have already laid claim.

After that, "they’ll transfer over their own sperm packets, and the female will either accept those and store those," Payne says, "or say no and get rid of them." Once the female has finished mating and finds a suitable spot to lay her eggs—somewhere protected from the currents by coral or rocks—she'll reach inside the cavity and retrieve the sperm packets, using whichever one she chooses to fertilize the eggs as she lays them.

8. Males will "cross dress" for access to a female.

Male cuttlefish use their color-changing ability to put on a dramatic show for females they're wooing. But this kind of ostentatious display runs the risk of attracting not just females but other males, as well. And in the competitive world of cuttlefish courtship—where males vastly outnumber females—alerting other males to the presence of a potential mate could jeopardize a cuttlefish's chance at reproducing.

To account for this, wily male cuttlefish employ some tricky gender-bending camouflage. With one half of their body they put on a colorful display for the female's benefit. With the other half, they disguise themselves as another female, mimicking the muted tones of the female they're courting so as not to attract the attention of nearby males.

In other instances, males will disguise themselves fully as female in order to sneak past larger males standing guard over a female after they've mated with her. To do so, the cross-dressing male not only changes his coloration, he will also hide his tell-tale fourth pair of arms (females only have three) and position himself to appear as if he's carrying eggs. A 2005 study showed that this deception works—almost half the time, the cross-dressing male gets the girl.

9. Cuttlefish use decoys as defense.

When they're threatened, cuttlefish, like most cephalopods, will release a cloud of ink to hide themselves from the would-be predator. But if simple smoke and mirrors won't cut it, the cuttlefish can mix its ink with mucus to create a smaller, denser cloud roughly in the same size and shape as its own body—or a decoy cuttlefish. These so-called pseudomorphs serve to distract and confuse the attacker while the cuttlefish scoots away.

10. Cuttlefish hunt using hypnosis.

Although they typically use their color-changing abilities to blend in to avoid getting eaten, when cuttlefish go on the offensive, they turn their bodies into pulsating light and color shows in an attempt to hypnotize potential prey.

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Animals
Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
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Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
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Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
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Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
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Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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Animals
10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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