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Octopus vision: not as black and white as we think

Dr Misha Vorobyev. Photo: supplied

Dr Misha Vorobyev of the University of Auckland will disentangle the mystery of colour vision in octopuses. He will carry out a series of experiments to determine how octopuses can distinguish colour and texture despite being assumed to be colour blind


Published on 5 November 2019  

Octopuses have a remarkable ability to camouflage themselves by matching their body colour and shape to the colour and texture of the background environment. One third of all nerve fibres from an octopus brain are connected to colour changing patches on the octopus’ skin. This allows an octopus to change its appearance in a fraction of a second. In addition, octopuses have specialised muscles in their skin which can change the three dimensional texture from smooth to spikey. Incredibly, despite having very acute vision, octopuses only have one visual pigment in their eyes and therefore should be colour blind.


Octopus in the lab. Photo: supplied

Dr Misha Vorobyev has been awarded a te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden grant to address this enigma of octopus vision - how can an apparently colour blind animal match its body to the background environment if it is unable to see those colours? Dr Vorobyev will conduct a series of experiments to examine if octopuses can detect colour variation in the environment through means other than direct colour vision. Rather than the colours themselves, are they able to detect the presence of different wavelengths of light through light refraction, or are they able to sense the brightness of the environment, which they correlate with colour? Alternatively, do octopuses get information on colour from the polarisation of light since they possess a polarisation-sensitive eye? Dr Vorobyev’s novel set of experiments will test these possibilities, among others, in this wide-ranging study.

In addition to solving the mystery of the colour blind octopus, Dr Vorobyev’s study will help scientists understand the evolutionary relationship between vision and animal body patterns.