Octopuses are beautiful sea animals that can change their skin color and texture in order to avoid predators, sneak up on prey, and to communicate with other octopuses. But do they dream? A new video has surfaced that shows an octopus sleeping, but what’s strange is that it changes colors in a dramatic way.
Footage that’s been circulating online shows a Caribbean two-spot octopus (or Octopus hummelincki) that’s sleeping in an aquarium at Butterfly Pavilion, which is a non-profit invertebrate zoo located in Westminster, Colorado. Since the aquarium was very well lit, it was easy to see the octopus’ skin color changing from light to dark and then back again to light. Rebecca Otey, who was a science and conservation intern for the zoo, shot the video in October of 2017 before posting it to YouTube.
The beginning of the video shows the sleeping octopus as a pearly-white color, but as the nap went on, its skin turned into a dark pattern that pulsed with its breath, followed by a completely dark color that covered its entire body before slowly fading back to white. The question on everyone’s mind is “why?”
Sara Stevens, who is an aquarist with Butterfly Pavilion, told Live Science that the color changes on octopuses are caused by chromatophores which are specialized pigment cells that either expand or contract to create the colors and patterns on its body. Iridophores and leucophores are the other two types of cells which are believed to detect the colors that the octopus’ skin then turns into. Since octopuses are colorblind, these cells are very important factors in how they end up changing colors to blend into their surroundings.
“The exact processes of how they match colors is still not fully understood, though it’s being very thoroughly studied,” Stevens said, adding, “But current research suggests that the actual cells themselves can match colors.”
Since cephalopods normally alter their colors because of the conditions changing around them (like a predator approaching), why did the octopus in the video change colors while sleeping? One possibility is that it was dreaming about a threat. While research has been conducted into what goes on in the brains of cephalopods while they are asleep, it remains unclear whether they dream the same way that humans do. “It’s been hypothesized that octopus species can exhibit something very similar to REM cycles in humans – but the jury’s still out on whether they’re achieving REM sleep,” Stevens explained.
While humans only have one brain, octopuses have nine of them – one central brain in its nervous system, and the other eight are at the base of each of its arms that controls its movements. They also have tons of neurons in its body – around 500 million. Stevens also mentioned that while octopuses have great control over the color-changing cells, they may not have complete control all the time.
So, was the octopus dreaming of a predator coming to attack, or was the color change completely out of its control while it was sleeping? We may never know the answer, but it’s still very interesting to witness the remarkable features of this beautiful sea animal.