While we were Finding Nemo, we stumbled into the wonderful world of ink in nature.
There are a lot of Pixar fans in the office and in way-too-early anticipation of 2016’s Finding Dory – the sequel to Finding Nemo – someone shared a clip from the original movie.
Naturally, this led on to a vigorous discussion of what animals use ink in the natural world. It turns out that hardly any of them can, but the ones that do are pretty amazing.
The only creatures I could find that use ink in this way live in the sea and are called cephalopods (which means ‘foot head’). That’s octopus, squid or cuttlefish. When I looked into these creatures I was struck by how clever they are.
There’s a fascinating article at the Orion website where the writer describes meeting an octopus and how, when she stroked its head, it changed colour showing it was relaxed. (Another octopus took a dislike to a worker and regularly squirted her with water. After she left, he wasn’t grumpy with anyone else. When she returned a visit a few months later, he squirted her again. Did he recognise her?)
Octopuses (or octopodes, but never octopi) have also figured how to unscrew the lids of jars, open childproof medicine bottles (which I still can’t do, as a full-grown human) and even solve puzzles. In fact, different octopuses can complete such tests in different ways, hinting at having their own little personalities.
I used to think that cephalopods just squirted ink as a kind of involuntary reaction, a bit like someone might sneeze. Danger = atishoo! But I now I believe there’s more going on.
When threatened, some cephalopods can make themselves darker and shoot out a thicker-than-normal blob of ink. This blob of ink will hold its shape well and last longer before dissolving in the water. Crucially, it’ll be about the size of the animal that made it; it has created an ‘ink clone’ of itself.
While the predator is trying to eat the black ink blob, the cephalopod will have changed shade from dark to light and swum off to safety. Plus – plus! – the ink contains chemicals that confuse the attacker’s sense of smell and taste.
This is so effective that it even confuses humans.
That would be a terribly useful skill to have at the office. If you’re late with a report, you might just flatulate a smoky clone of yourself as a distraction and run away.
(Or, if you wanted to be extra sneaky, you could copy the Caribbean reef squid and shoot a cloud of ink at your boss to disorient him, then disguise yourself as a cloud of ink, so he thinks you’re not even in the building any more.)
Learning about all of this, I started wondering what other animals had quirky defensive mechanisms. Could there be more creatures that that squirted, sneezed and sprayed their way to safety?
If I hear my tummy rumbling, it’s because I’m hungry. If I hear a bombardier beetle rumbling, it’s about to fire boiling hot chemicals out of its abdomen.
Texas Horned Lizard
The next time you see someone’s red biro leaking in their pocket, just make sure they’ve not actually been attacked by an ornery lizard. That shoots blood. From its eyes.
Have you ever got into an argument at work? Were you annoyed enough to bend over and shoot internal organs out of your bottom? (At the person you disagreed with I mean, not to repaint the office with your offal in a fit of decorative flair.)
All this talk of ink makes me imagine what our offices will be like in the future. Will printers and photocopiers become so smart that they are actually self-aware?
If you never clean your inkjet will it show it’s grumpy by squirting red ink at you? If you keep feeding the wrong paper into your laser printer, might it give your fingers a little zap to tell you to wake up?
Finally, if ink and toner cartridges ever develop a fear of running empty, will they learn a camouflage lesson from the octopus and make themselves invisible to avoid being used?