Sensory physiology and ecology of Rapid Adaptive Coloration in cephalopods

Department of Biology Seminar Series
Dr. Roger Hanlon
- | Virtual
Dr. Hanlon

Host: Lawrence Rome

ABSTRACT: Cephalopods have the fastest color change known due to direct neural control of skin color, pattern, and 3-D texture. I will briefly review the sensory capabilities of cephalopods, then focus first on visual perception of natural backgrounds by cuttlefish to guide dynamic camouflage, which can be implemented in less than one second even in complex visual environments like coral reefs. I will briefly describe how the CNS transcribes sensory input into motor output that produces appropriate body patterns for camouflage and communication. Thereafter, emphasis will be on neurophysiology of skin chromatophores and iridophores. Finally, I will show recent progress in the development of bio-inspired materials and engineering that produce rapid color pattern change for a variety of applications.


  • octopus, cuttlefish and squid have refined neural systems and sophisticated behavior
  • they live in complex environments such as coral reefs and kelp forests, and they compete directly with marine teleost fishes
  • we have figured out the visual algorithms that cuttlefish use as “neural short cuts” to produce near-instantaneous camouflage on any visual background
  • their skin is beautiful and complex, and direct neural control enables dynamic change in pigmentary chromatophores, reflective iridophores and 3D skin papillae.
  • art and science converge in the study of sensory ecology of color change, and some principles of cephalopod coloration are well represented in certain genres of art, architecture, landscape design, photography, sculpture, fashion design, etc. and I hope to stimulate thoughts of how these fields can draw upon nature’s designs to advance their development.



Roger Hanlon was trained in marine sciences at Florida State University and the University of Miami and studied sensory ecology as a NATO postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University. He is a diving biologist who uses digital instrumentation (photos, video, hyperspectral imaging, spectrometry) to analyze rapid adaptive camouflage and communication in cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish) and fishes, and his lab performs laboratory experiments to address questions derived from field data. Recently his laboratory has focused on a highly multidisciplinary effort to quantify animal camouflage, touching subjects as varied as visual perception, psychophysics, neuroscience, behavioral ecology, image analyses, computer vision, and art. Laboratory research involves live-animal, hypothesis-driven experimentation on several key aspects of the adaptive camouflage and signaling systems. Overall, 240 peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published on these and related subjects, and in 2018 the 2nd edition of the book Cephalopod Behaviour was published by Cambridge University Press. Collaborations with materials scientists and engineers aim to develop new classes of materials that change appearance based on the pigments and reflectors in cephalopod skin. Active public outreach featuring these charismatic marine animals has been conducted with NOVA, BBC, Discovery, NatGeo, New York Times, NPR, TED 2019 and others.


This seminar will be fully remote:

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