Cuttlefish’s Shifting Colors Could Be Reproduced in ‘Artificial Skin’

The shifting colors on the skin of cuttlefish and other cephalopods could lead to bio-inspired camouflage and signalling, researchers at the University of Bristol suggest. The team was inspired by the mechanism behind the soft, aquatic creature's ability to change the color of its skin — unlike the chameleon's famous color-switching ability, cephalopods like cuttlefish and octopus can change color rapidly enough to produce moving patterns and signals to confuse predators and communicate with others of the same species.

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In the animals, tiny sacs of dark pigment called chromatophores are expanded or contracted by muscles radiating from them, a bit like an eye's iris opening and closing. This darkens the color of the skin under which the pigment sacs lie, and can be done quickly and easily to produce a variety of shades.

Artificial chromatophores used by the researchers to test and theorize an "artificial skin" containing many such units. Jonathan Rossiter / University of Bristol

Aaron Fishman and the others on the team simulated and created arrays of similar pigment spots that expand and contract — though these artificial chromatophores (invented during previous research by co-author Jonathan Rossiter) are much larger and are activated with electricity, not physical force. They found that giving the units composing this "artificial skin" simple rules to obey — for instance, to activate if a majority of their surrounding spots were activated — produced many patterns like those found in animals.

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"We hope that this research could lead to a host of novel and compliant devices such as cloaking suits and dynamic illuminated clothing," write the researchers in a summary of the paper.

The team's work appears in a paper published Wednesday in the Royal Society's Interface journal. Further work is needed — the chromatophores and arrays are only at a prototype stage — but it's not hard to imagine a whole spectrum of applications for these color-changing materials.