It’s been a long time since I put a critter in the spotlights, so it’s time for one of my personal favourites: the Flamboyant Cuttlefish! I am definitely not the only one to like this amazing little animal, for most divers it is high in the top 10 of critters to see. With good reason as well, Flamboyant Cuttlefish are one of the most beautiful and intriguing inhabitants of sandy dive sites.
The small cephalopod many divers call “Flamboyant Cuttlefish” are in fact two species: the Flamboyant Cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) and the Paintpot Cuttlefish (Metasepia tullbergi). The first one lives in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the north of Australia. The Paintpot Cuttlefish is found further north, from the Gulf of Thailand all the way up to southern Japan. Both species are classic muck dive critters, they only occur on muddy or sandy bottoms, so you will have to move away from coral reef to encounter them.
So why does this animal deserve the effort of searching sandy plains for days on end, in the hope catching a glimpse of it? To start with (the name is a bit of a give-away) they are very flamboyant critters. We are talking yellows, pinks, blacks and whites, all at once! If that wasn’t enough, they often change their colours into “traveling waves”, even more so than normal cuttlefish or octopuses. From my experience, smaller Flamboyant Cuttlefishes have the brightest colours and make the most extravagant displays. When I write small, I do mean really small: adults do not grow much bigger than 8cm. They ideally sized Flamboyant Cuttlefish for the best colour-show would be around 3-5 cm!
If finding an animal that size seems difficult, you might also want to consider the following. When they are not disturbed, hunting, or mating, Flamboyant Cuttlefish are anything but flamboyant. In their “standard” state, they blend in perfectly with their background, so they will be a mottled grey, brown, or black. For this reason some divers or photographers are tempted to disturb the animal to better see its colours. It is obvious that this is a bad idea, as it will stress out the cuttlefish. Be patient instead, observe it for a while and you might even be rewarded by seeing it hunt small shrimp, lay eggs, or even mate!
Another thing that is special about them is that they do not swim, but walk across the bottom. To do so they use two of their arms and an adaptation of their mantle. They can swim, but only do so when they’re startled and over short distances. I could easily spend an entire dive watching these guys wander across the seafloor, little blobs of colour on a quest to eat as many shrimp as possible. It might be because of the awkward way they walk, but I always imagine them to be mildly grumpy animals. A bit like an old man with stiff joints who can’t walk that well, grumbling to himself about how the terrible weather…
An interesting mystery surrounding these animals is whether or not they are toxic. Their colours would suggest some form of aposematic colouration, in the same way nudibranchs advertise their toxicity with bright colours. Some authors have even suggested flamboyant cuttlefish might mimic nudibranchs such as the Ocellate Phyllidia (Phyllidia ocellata). I have however, not read a single bit of conclusive evidence of this. It seems to be one of these “facts” people have assumed, written about and then it just got copied. To date there seem to be no papers out their describing whether or not Flamboyant Cuttlefish really are toxic, and which toxin they would produce. If anyone would have come across that information, I would be very grateful if you could share it with me and the rest of the world.
As is often the case with small critters, we don’t know very much about them. But that doesn’t have to stop us enjoying looking at them. Which is why I couldn’t resist adding a video of one of these guys. The title is a bit too sensational, but the footage is great, enjoy!
9 thoughts on “Flamboyant Cuttlefish”
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I was searching for the difference between M. tullbergi & M. pfefferi and I found your article. Do you know how exactly to tell the difference apart from distribution? I’d like to know about that if you can guide me.
Furthermore, I’ve noticed that the mystery of Flamboyant cuttlefish toxicity in your article. As you mention, I’ve done a quick search and found that there is no solid research evidence to show that Flamboyant cuttlefish is toxic! It all traced back to a book . Have you tried to find the answers in this book? I’d like to do so if I could access this book!
Evolution of Venomous Animals and their toxins
Norman, M.D. 2000. Cephalopods: A World Guide.
Well..your guess is as good as mine. I still haven’t seen any scientific studies published that prove if they have venom or are toxic. This cool study on colour change patterns in the Flamboyant cuttlefish says the same: “No toxicological study of the flesh of the animal has been published to date” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2017.00393/full. Another recent paper does not mention it either https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022098120300642 (let me know if you need access to either of the papers).
In all fairness, I haven’t really been keeping up with the literature, so there could be more info out there on their toxicity, but nothing that pops up easily.
The answer to your question about the difference between M. tullbergi and M. pfefferi is location. M. tullbergi lives more north (Japan, Korea, Hongkong), M. pfefferi further south (Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia). There don’t seem to be many obvious physical characteristics to tell them apart. I have never seen M. tullbergi, so I can’t speak from experience whether there are other differences.
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Thank you for your prompt reply 🙂
It is funny to say that the Cephalopods ID books published in Taiwan and Japan which mentioned about M. tullbergi is non-toxic at all! It brought up another issue… What kind of flamboyant cuttlefish we have here in Taiwan? Our location is pretty tricky for these two species.
You may like to watch some footage of flamboyant cuttlefish here in Northern Taiwan.
In Taiwan you should get M. tullbergi…in theory 😉 I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some overlap, but I haven’t read anything recent on their distributions. So genetic work might be needed to find out who’s really in Taiwan 🙂
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