Aphids get superpowers through sex


When aphids have sex, the male often infect the females with beneficial bacteria that gives them useful powers, like the ability to fight off parasites.

As far as humans are concerned, sexually-transmitted infections are things to avoid. But imagine if these infections didn’t cause death and disease, but gave you superpowers instead. It may sound like a bizarre fantasy, but it’s just part of life for aphids.

An aphid feeds off a plant.

Aphids mostly reproduce without sex, giving rise to many all-female generations that are exact copies (clones) of their parents. They only have sex once in autumn, the only time when mothers give birth to males.

Asexual reproduction makes sense for aphid mothers since they pass on all of their genes to their daughters. If they reproduced sexually, their offspring would only inherit half of their genes, diminishing their legacy. Why then would a female aphid choose to have sex at all?

Nancy Moran and Helen Dunbar at the University of Tuscon a surprising answer. They may be trying to receive sexually-transmitted infections from other aphids.

Sex is power

Aphids carry various strains of bacteria inside their bodies. These ‘symbionts’, far from causing disease, actually provide the aphids with useful abilities. Some strains allow them to feed off a greater variety of plants, while others give them the ability to withstand higher temperatures. Some can even save their lives.

Aphids are commonly targeted by parasitic wasps. These grisly creatures lay their eggs inside the aphids’ bodies and the developing grubs eat their hosts from the inside out. But aphids that carry the symbiont Hamiltona defensa avoid this cruel fate, because their bacterial partners destroy the developing wasp grubs. Clearly, these are friends worth having.

Mothers pass on the helpful symbionts to their children but they can also be transferred between unrelated individuals through sex. In fact, the only way for a female to get some symbionts in the first place, or to add to an existing collection, is to have sex with an infected male.

Sex, flies and symbionts

If other insects do this, we could use sexually-transmitted bacteria to our advantage. For example, the African tsetse fly, carrier of sleeping sickness, also harbours a symbiont that resembles the species found in aphids.

Moran and Dunbar suggest that we could infect flies with a genetically-engineered symbiont that disables or kills the parasite that causes sleeping sickness. Infected males would pass this killer symbiont through the population and reduce the spread of sleeping sickness.

More on aphids: 
Aphids defend themselves with chemical bombs

More about animal sex and reproduction:
Virgin birth by Komodo dragons
Butterflies evolve resistance to male-killing bacteria in record time 
When the heat is on, male dragons become females
Chimerism, or How a marmoset’s sperm is really his brother’s


Reference:  Moran & Dunbar. 2006. PNAS Epub


The mantis shrimp – the world’s fastest punch

Mantis shrimps are mere inches long but can throw the fastest punch of any animal. They strike with the force of a rifle bullet and can shatter aquarium glass and crab shells alike. Now with the aid of super-speed cameras, we are beginning to truly appreciate how powerful this animal is.


In April 1998, an aggressive creature named Tyson smashed through the quarter-inch-thick glass wall of his cell. He was soon subdued by nervous attendants and moved to a more secure facility in Great Yarmouth. Unlike his heavyweight namesake, Tyson was only four inches long. But scientists have recently found that Tyson, like all his kin, can throw one of the fastest and most powerful punches in nature. He is a mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimps are aggressive relatives of crabs and lobsters and prey upon other animals by crippling them with devastating jabs. Their secret weapons are a pair of hinged arms folded away under their head, which they can unfurl at incredible speeds.

The ‘spearer’ species have arms ending in a fiendish barbed spike that they use to impale soft-bodied prey like fish. But the larger ‘smasher’ species have arms ending in heavy clubs, and use them to deliver blows with the same force as a rifle bullet.

Fastest claw in the west

A smasher displays its weaponry.

When Sheila Patek, a researcher at USC Berkeley, tried to study these heavy-hitters on video, she hit a snag. “None of our high speed video systems were fast enough to capture the movement accurately” she explained.

“Luckily, a BBC crew offered to rent us a super high speed camera as part of their series ‘Animal Camera’.” (Photograph above by Sheila Patek & Wyatt Korff)

With this cutting-edge equipment, Patek managed to capture footage of a smasher’s strike, slowed down over 800 times. What she found was staggering. With each punch, the club’s edge travels at about 50 mph, over twice as fast as scientists had previously estimated.*

“The strike is one of the fastest limb movements in the animal kingdom”, says Patek. “It’s especially impressive considering the substantial drag imposed by water.”

Water is much denser than air and even the quickest martial artist would have considerable difficulty punching in it. And yet the mantis shrimp’s finishes its strike in under three thousandths of a second, out-punching even its land-living namesake.

The need for speed

If the animal simply flicked its arm out, like a human, it would never achieve such blistering speeds. Instead, mantis shrimps use an ingeniously simple energy storage system. Once the arm is cocked, a ratchet locks it firmly in place. The large muscles in the upper arm then contract and build up energy. When the latch is released, all this energy is released at once and the lower arm is launched forwards.

But Patek found that even this system couldn’t account for the mantis shrimp’s speed. Instead, the key to the punch is a small, structure in the arm that looks like a saddle or a Pringle chip.

When the arm is cocked, this structure is compressed and acts like a spring, storing up even more energy. When the latch is released, the spring expands and provides extra push for the club, helping to accelerate it at up to 10,000 times the force of gravity.

This smasher’s arm is truly state-of-the-art natural technology. “Saddle-shaped springs are well-known to engineers and architects”, explains Patek, “ but is unusual in biological systems. Interestingly, a recent paper showed that a similarly shaped spring closes the Venus’s fly trap.”

Killing with bubbles

Patek’s cameras revealed an even bigger surprise – each of the smasher’s strikes produced small flashes of light upon impact. They are emitted because the club moves so quickly that it lowers the pressure of the water in front of it, causing it to boil.

This releases small bubbles which collapse when the water pressure normalises, unleashing tremendous amounts of energy. This process, called cavitation, is so destructive that it can pit the stainless steel of boat propellers. Combined with the force of the strike itself, no animal in the seas stands a chance.

Large smashers can even make meals of crabs, buckling their thick armour as easily as they do aquarium glass. And they are often seen beating up much larger fish and octopuses, which are unfortunate enough to wander past their burrows.

Not just a good right hook

Some scientists think that the mantis shrimps’ belligerent nature evolved because the rock crevices they inhabit are fiercely contested. This competition has also made these animals smarter than the average shrimp. They are the only invertebrates that can recognise other individuals of their species and can remember if the outcome of a fight against a rival for up to a month.

And recently, Roy Caldwell, also from USC Berkeley, discovered that mantis shrimps have the most sophisticated eyes of any animal. While human eyes only have a measly three kinds of light receptors, mantis shrimps have at least ten, allowing them to see into the infrared and ultraviolet range.

One can only guess if these animals have other record-breaking adaptations that are yet to be discovered.


To find out more about mantis shrimps, check out the excellent Lurker’s Guide to Stomatopods.

This article won a runner-up prize in the 2005 Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer competition.

Reference: Patek, Korff & Caldwell. 2004. Nature 428: 819-820.

Update: At the time of writing, the mantis shrimp’s punch was a strong candidate for the fastest movement in the natural world. It has since been trumped by the bite of the well-named trapjaw ant, whose mandibles close with an almost unbelievable maximum speed of 140 mph. This discovery was made by none other than Sheila Patek. The mantis shrimp’s punch is still the world’s fastest limb movement, but the trapjaw ant’s jaws leave it dragging in its wake.

Related stuff about animal hunters: 

Bone-crushing super-wolf went extinct during last Ice Age
The snake that eat toads to steal their poison

Tarantula climbs walls by spinning silk from its feet
Chimpanzees make spears to hunt bushbabies



How Big Brother keeps us honest

Even selfish people can act selflessly when their reputation is on the line. Now, a simple experiment reveals just how honest people become when they feel that Big Brother is watching them.

The wallet problem - would you take it if you thought someone was watching?Imagine that you’re walking along a quiet street and you see a wallet lying on the pavement. Would you take it? Now imagine the same situation with a small difference – the wallet has a red circle drawn around it. While many people would be tempted in the first scenario, almost no one would touch the wallet in the second.

The key difference is that the lone wallet was most likely dropped accidentally by a passer-by. But the encircled wallet was clearly placed and marked by someone, who may well still be watching. And there is nothing that keeps people more honest than the presence of a watchman.

Explaining honesty

Social experiments like these are of great interest to biologists because they tell us more about the nature of selfishness and altruism. In recent years, selfishness has become something of a biological buzzword and many influential writers have cast living things as self-serving vessels acting for the benefit of their genes. In this harsh light, individuals co-operate with each other only if they reap a personal reward.

But some acts of altruism, particularly human ones, are harder to explain. We are often kind and generous to others, even if they are unrelated (and so share no genes) or are unlikely to ever repay the good deed. Is this true selflessness, or is there something else going on?

Image is everything

One theory is that such selfless acts do provide benefits – they raise the reputation of the do-gooder in the eyes of their peers. Some lab experiments have supported this idea by showing that people co-operate more strongly if they know they are being watched.

Now, Melissa Bateson and colleagues at the University of Newcastle have shown just how strong this effect with a cunning psychological experiment. Rather than study subjects in an artificial environment, they chose to run a simple test on the other unwitting members of their university’s Division of Psychology in their own coffee room.

The walls have eyes

For years, Bateson had put up a friendly notice reminding staff members to pay for their tea, milk and coffee by putting money into an honesty box. To run her experiment, she made one small change – she added an image banner to the top of the notice which alternated on different weeks between some flowers and a pair of eyes.

Being watched makes people more honestEach time, different eyes were used of varying gender and expression but in all cases, they were staring straight at the reader. When she compared the amount of money collected from week to week, with the amount of drink that people bought, the results were striking.

On average, people paid almost three times more for their drinks when the pair of eyes watched over them. When the image changed from flowers to eyes, the payments always went up and when they were changed back, they always went down. The mere appearance of Big Brother prompted people towards greater heights of honesty.

Being watched

It’s very unlikely that the eyes made the staff members consciously believe that they were actually being watched. After all, the room’s layout ensured that cheats who didn’t pay up would never be caught by their colleagues.

Instead, Bateson believes that the eye images probably set off unconscious and automatic reactions in people who viewed them, a sort of mental reflex. Her theory is that our brains are very keenly attuned to cues that indicate that their behaviour could affect their reputation.

The presence of onlookers could be one such cue, and indeed, human brains have special neurons that are primed to respond to eyes and faces. The effect of such cues must be very strong indeed, since the relatively weak stimulus of an image of eyes produced such strong changes in behaviour.

Being human

But what does this say about us? Are we truly all self-serving hypocrites, helping each other solely to further our status? Clearly not. For a start, even the images of flowers prompted staff members to contribute small amounts of money to the honesty box. If we were all the wholly selfish creatures that reductionists might have us believe, then even these paltry payments might be unexpected.

But more importantly, the responses to the eye images were sub-conscious, rather than active decisions. A selfless act consciously designed to further one’s status might be robbed of its valour. But a selfless act based on an instinctive reaction is a selfless act nonetheless.

If this experiment tells us anything, it is that safeguarding our reputation, for whatever reason, is very much part of being human.

Reference: Bateson, Nettle and Roberts. 2006. Biol. Lett. 2: 1744-9561.

Related posts on morality:
Our sense of fair play lives on the right side of the brain
The Lady Macbeth effect – how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness

Other posts on psychology: 
In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money
Why music sounds right – the hidden tones in our own speech
Impulsive brains are primed for drug addiction

Of dogs and devils – the rise of contagious cancer

While human cancers cannot be transmitted from person to person, scientists have recently identified two types of contagious cancers in animals. In Tasmanian devils and domestic dogs, cancer cells have evolved into independent parasites, jumping from animal to animal like an infectious virus.

Cancer cells are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Having broken free of the rules and strictures that govern other cells, they are free to grow and divide as they please. In a short space of time, a lone cancer cell can form a mass of identical clones – a tumour. Theoretically, cancers could exist indefinitely, but as always, there is a catch. Those that spread quickly and aggressively do so at the expense of their host, who usually ends up dying, taking the tumour with it.

But there is one way a cancer could escape this fate and carry on its selfish reproduction – by finding another host. It could become contagious.

In humans, cancers are definitely not contagious. You can’t catch cancer from someone who has it. At most, you can inherit a higher risk of developing cancer, because of faulty genes passed on from your parents. But recently, scientists have found some startling exceptions to this rule.

Even devils get cancerTasmanian devils are plagued by a contagious facial cancer

Earlier this year, Australian researchers Anne-Marie Pearse and Kate Swift found that a facial cancer plaguing the local Tasmanian devils (right) was caused by contagious cancers.

The condition, known as devil facial tumour disease, is spread when an infected devil bites another. The devils’ boisterous temperaments and their propensity for squabbling over carcasses mean that such bites are common.

Once infected, the animals develop grotesque tumours that stop them from feeding properly, and they usually die of starvation within six months. As a result, the cancer is decimating the already small population.

Going to the dogs

At University College London, Robin Weiss and Claudio Murgia have found another example of an infectious cancer – a disease called canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT), or Sticker’s sarcoma.

CTVT is transmitted through sex or close contact between infected dogs. It was first described 130 years ago by a German scientist called Novinski and its origins have been debated ever since. Some scientists suggested that it was caused by a virus, much like human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer in humans today.

But in a study published this month, Weiss and Murgia have put these theories to rest. They and their colleagues analysed tumour samples from 40 dogs across five continents. All these samples shared identical and distinctive genetic markers that uninfected tissues from the same dogs did not.

The explanation was clear – these cancers had not developed in the usual way from the cells of the host animals. The cancer cells themselves were spreading from dog to dog.

Becoming contagious

CTVT evolved in an old Asian dog line, like the huskyThese rogue cells have become parasites in their own right, evolving from a single ancestor into a dynasty that has colonised the globe aboard canine vessels. How this process began is still a mystery, but Weiss’s analysis provides some hints as to where and when.

The original cancer cell must have developed in either a wolf or an old Asian dog lineage, such as a Husky (left). It evolved anywhere between 200 and 2500 years ago and may well have been around for even longer.

In fact, the CTVT cancer cell is very likely to be the oldest lineage of mammalian cells still in existence. The cells that Weiss is studying today are most probably direct clone descendants of the same cells that Novinski identified 130 years ago – genetically identical great-granddaughters of the original tumour.

To kill or not to kill

When that original cell gained independence, it became truly immortal, long outliving its original body and lasting for centuries. So far, we don’t know of any human cancer cells that have pulled off a similar trick. But Weiss feels that if they did, the best place to look for them would be in people with weaker immune systems including transplant patients and those with HIV.

His group have found evidence that evading the host’s immune defences is a key part of CTVT’s strategy for finding another dog to infect. The cells accomplish this by switching off some key immune system players – a group of genes collectively called dog leukocyte antigens (DLAs). They also secrete a protein called TGF-β1 that strongly blocks any immune responses.

But slipping past immune sentries would do the cells no good if the host died before infecting another dog. Infection requires sex, which may not happen for some time. So CTVT is a merciful parasite.

At the start of infection, it grows rapidly, but within 3-9 months, it regresses of its own accord. By never killing its carrier, the cells ensure that they can spread to as many new hosts as possible.

The Tasmanian devils are not so lucky. Their cancers are spread through biting, a more frequent event than sex, and as such, they can afford to be more aggressive. But the devils’ population is small and their genetic diversity is low. This combination may spell the end for both devils and cancer cells, unless some vaccine can be found.


Reference: Pearse & Swift. 2006. Nature 439: 549.
Murgia, Pritchard, Kim, Fassati & Weiss. 2006. Cell 126: 477-487.


Related posts on dogs:
Bone-crushing super-wolf went extinct during last Ice Age
The fox and the island: an Aleutian fable

Related posts on cancer:
The insula – the brain’s cigarette addiction centre

The fox and the island – an Aleutian fable


Island-dwelling animals across the world have been devastated by predators introduced by man. In the Aleutian islands, this age-old problem has gone one step further. There, the introduction of Arctic foxes has changed the very nature of the land itself.


Nizki island has changed. If you had visited Nizki in the 19th century, you would have been greeted by the chorus of massive colonies of seabirds, and set foot on verdant grassland. But travel to the island now and you would find a land transformed. The tall grasses and most of the seabirds have gone. The landscape is now tundra, dominated by low-lying shrubs and suffering from poor soil quality.

And if you looked carefully, you could probably spot the perpetrator behind the altered terrain – the Arctic fox. According to literature and folklore, the fox had exceptional powers of cunning and trickery. But science now reveals that they have another trick up their sleeve – the power to change entire landscapes.

The foxes arrive

The Arctic fox takes another Aleutian birdNizki Island is part of the Aleutian archipelago, a band of sub-Arctic islands that spans the gulf between Russia and Alaska.

In the late 19th century, the island chain was visited by fur traders. Seeking to forestall losses from declining sea otter numbers, the traders introduced Arctic foxes to the islands to act as a readily available future source of fur.

A century later, Donald Croll and James Estes from the University of California, Santa Cruz, were carrying out conservation work in the Aleutians. They noticed that islands infested by foxes had changed from grassland to low-lying tundra and wanted to work out how the furry predators had affected the Aleutian archipelago.

Thankfully, the fur traders had failed to introduce foxes to some of the islands, and many remain fox-free to this day. They had unwittingly set up a massive natural experiment, which Croll and Estes took advantage of. Backed by a team of researchers, they surveyed 18 islands, comparing those that were ridden with foxes and those that lacked them.

Goodbye seabirds, farewell gauno

They found that when foxes first invaded the islands, they began doing what natural selection had designed them to do – killing. Their prey were the local seabirds, and only species that nested on unreachable cliff faces escaped them.

Burrow-nesters like puffins and surface-nesters like gulls were easily taken and their populations were decimated. Today, seabirds are a hundred times more common on fox-free islands than on their fox-infested neighbours.

The landscape changes from grassland to tundra without guano

Bird droppings, or ‘guano’ were the main source of fertiliser for the Aleutian vegetation. By feeding in the productive ocean waters and defecating inland, the birds transferred nutrients from the rich sea to the poor land.

As the seabirds died, guano levels fell by over 60 times, and the soil was quickly rendered infertile. With foxes around, the levels of phosphorus – a key nutrient in most ecosystems – on an island plummeted by three times.

This newly depleted land could not longer support lush grassland, and shrubs became the dominant plant as the grasses died out.

As a final test of their theories, the scientists artificially added fertiliser to parts of fox-infested islands over three years, to mimic the effect of guano. On the fertilised terrain, grass rapidly re-established itself as the dominant plant group, increasing in numbers by 24 times.

Killer immigrants

The problem of introduced predators is, sadly, not uncommon. All around the world, people have transferred predators to places they don’t belong with devastating consequences. The problem is especially serious on islands, where the local wildlife is naïve about the threat of predators, or has lost defensive adaptations such as flight.

In Australia and New Zealand, foxes, cats and stoats have hunted their way through local bird populations, driving many to the brink of extinction. And as the Aleutian problem demonstrates, the effects of introduced killers can ripple out to affect more than just their prey. In this example, entire ecosystems can be changed over a very large area.

Deporting the problem

In the Aleutians at least, the problem seems solvable. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been removing foxes from Aleutian islands for over 35 years. As a result, the seabirds are staging a comeback and the lush vegetation is returning. Even so, it may take several more decades for the islands to return to their former glory.

Until then, the Aleutians serve as a stark reminder of the disastrous effects of placing top predators where they don’t belong. Conserving these animals in their original homes is just as important – other studies have shown that removing top predators can wreak equally dramatic changes in an ecosystem.

Many of the world’s key predators – sharks, big cats, polar bears and many more – are facing extinction across a wide range of habitats. The need to conserve these decisive and often charismatic animals has never felt stronger.

Reference: Croll, Maron, Estes, Danner & Byrd. 2006. Science 307: 1959-1961.


Related posts on introduced predators:
Attack of the killer mice – introduced rodents eat seabird chicks
Shark-hunting harms animals at bottom of the food chain
Farmed salmon decimate wild populations by exposing them to parasites

Related posts on dogs:
Bone-crushing super-wolf went extinct during last Ice Age
Of dogs and devils: the rise of contagious cancer


Images: (Photos from Anthony DeGange and Donald Croll)



The mimic octopus – a master of disguise

In the natural world , mimicking a more dangerous creature is a common strategy for avoiding predators. But there is only one animal that can dynamically mimic many different creatures – the incredible mimic octopus.

As you swim through tropical waters, you notice that a strange creature has entered your territory. The intruder is unfamiliar, but when you try to chase it away, it undergoes a startling transformation. Its new form is one you recognise – a banded sea-snake, highly venomous and likely to make you its next meal. You turn and flee. You are a damselfish, you are in Indo-Malayan seas, and you have just been duped by the mimic octopus.

The mimic octopus is new to science and has yet to be properly classified *. It has, though, already gained notoriety for its unique ability to impersonate venomous or distasteful animals. Politicians and pop-stars may be beyond its scope, but its repertoire includes soles, lionfish, sea-snakes, and possibly sea anemones, stingrays and jellyfish.

To transform into a sea-snake, for example, the octopus withdraws its head and six of its tentacles into a burrow and waves the other two in opposite directions in an uncannily serpentine manner. You can download some Quicktime videos of the octopus doing its thing from the Royal Society website.

The mimic octopus

(Photograph by Ken Knezick)

The rewards of mimicry

Octopus specialist Dr Mark Norman, from the University of Melbourne, Australia, first observed the mimic off the coast of Indonesia. There, it forages in open sand flats during broad daylight and its talents may have evolved to keep it safe in these vulnerable surroundings. As Norman says, when you’re caught in the open by a passing fish, “you’ve got to look either deadly or inedible”.

Mimicking deadly or inedible animals reaps obvious benefits – predators avoid you, and you need not bother making poisons yourself. It has therefore become a common strategy, used by snakes and flies, spiders and plants. But these charlatans are all one-trick ponies.

In comparison, the mimic octopus’s charades are orders of magnitude more dynamic. “No other animal has been found that is able to rapidly change between different forms of mimicry”, says Dr Tom Tregenza, from the University of Leeds, UK, co-author of the paper which first described the mimic.

A coat of many colours

Having multiple acts benefits the octopus as predators are less likely to catch on to any individual one. If too many octopuses mimic a single creature – say, a lionfish – then predators are more and more likely to encounter the fake than the real deal. They might never learn that something that looks and moves like a lionfish is not worth biting.

The mimic octopus doing its sea snake routine Like all good performers, the mimic octopus caters to its audience. It only acts like a sea-snake (right) when confronted by territorial damselfish, which are preyed upon by sea-snakes. “This is very exciting because it raises the possibility that the mimic octopus can employ different forms of mimicry to counter different threats”, says Tregenza.

But is the mimic actually mimicking or are human eyes misinterpreting these movements? To answer this, a BBC/Discovery film crew captured six hours of live footage of the mimic in 2000. The combination of colour, posture and very “un-octopus-like” movement convinced many sceptics.

For example, when mimicking the leaf-shaped sole, the octopus not only draws its tentacles and head back into a leaf shape, but also matches a sole’s colours and undulates its body to resemble its swimming style.

Evolving an act

Norman believes that octopuses as a group are the equivalent of “rump steak swimming around”. Their bodies lack any sort of protective shell or skeleton and they have had to evolve other incredible defences to compensate. Soft bodies make them vulnerable, but they also make octopuses particularly well-suited to deception.

Without skeletons, they are expert contortionists, and can change shape or squeeze into tight spaces. Their remarkable skin can change texture, becoming spiky or smooth on a whim. It also contains sacs of pigment called chromatophores which can be expanded or contracted to produce rapid changes of colour and pattern. Armed with this arsenal of stealth, all octopuses are masters of disguise.

Most species are content to blend into their backgrounds. The mimic’s ancestor probably lived unnoticed in nearby coral reefs. These reefs are like busy and crowded high streets; in contrast, the sand flats are an open market, with rich pickings for any animal (provided that they can avoid being eaten).

The octopus’s inbuilt camouflage abilities would have given it a head-start. As time passed, individuals that slightly resembled poisonous animals would have lived longer without being eaten, allowing them to pass their appearances on to their offspring.

Unturned corners

The mimic’s behaviour remained undiscovered for years because its dull homelands are poorly studied. But it is precisely this barren nature that has provided the impetus to evolve such amazing behaviour.

As Tregenza says, “The mimic octopus teaches us that very bland and barren habitats may be home to the most impressive behaviours.” Even more surprising and wondrous animals may await discovery in these unexplored worlds.

This article won a runner-up prize in the 2004 Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer competition. I’m really pleased to now have it published for the first time – Ed


Update: *Since writing this article in 2004, Mark Norman has finally fully characterised and classified the mimic octopus. It now goes by the fitting scientific name of Thaumoctopus mimicus – the “mimicking miracle octopus”. – Ed

Reference: Norman, Finn & Tregenza. 2001. Proc Biol Sci 268: 1755-1758.

More about squid:

Camouflaged communication – the secret signals of squid

More about mimicry:  
Moths mimic each others’ sounds to fool hungry bats

More awesome animals:
The snake that eats toads to steal their poison
Virgin birth by Komodo dragons
Bats: internal compasses and record-breaking tongues
Tarantula climbs wall by spinning silk from its feet
The mantis shrimp: the world’s fastest punch