Color-coded conversation: Octopuses aren't so anti-social after all.

Scientists have long believed that octopuses do not interact with one another. New research is changing our understanding of the color-changing, shape-shifting cephalopods' behavior.

Courtesy of David Scheel
An octopus displays dark color and spread web and arms.

Octopuses may have more of a social life than scientists previously thought.

Researchers have recently discovered octopuses can use their color-changing abilities, long thought to be purely a form of camouflage to evade predators, to communicate with one another. The researchers observed the interactions in a group of Octopus tetricus living in Jervis Bay, Australia.

The report, published in Cell Press journal Current Biology, documented 186 octopus interaction and more than 500 actions, according to the press release.

The observations are changing the way scientists think about octopuses’ social tolerance. 

"I thought, that's very interesting. Here's this supposedly very non-social animal that doesn't really interact a lot with others," lead author David Scheel, a marine biologist at Alaska Pacific University, told CBC News. "And yet, they're signaling to each other."

Octopuses have a reputation of being solitary creatures, but the octopuses of Jervis Bay could be seen clearly interacting with each other. Researchers were able to pick up on a few patterns through observation of the animals.

The color of the animals during a confrontation often predicted whether they would fight. When the confronting animal was dark and the confronted was pale, it usually met the pale animal would run away. If the confronted was dark, it typically meant it would stand its ground.

The octopus likely uses its colors to indicate its intensions to others, according to the press release.

"When it's quite costly to fight, animals would be wise to signal whether they're about to run away or they're about to hold their ground," Mr. Scheel told CBC News. "And by doing so, they avoid fights where they would have lost."

"We found that octopuses are using body patterns and postures to signal to each other during disputes," Scheel also noted in the press release.

The octopuses were observed assuming a taller stance before confronting another, elevating their mantles, spreading out, and sometimes assuming higher ground.

Similar displays, like standing tall, have been observed before but have been interpreted to mean different things. Seeing their use as social displays add another dimension to the interpretation, according to New Scientist.

“These findings show that there are still misconceptions about octopuses and their world which remain to be tested,” Tamar Gutnik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told New Scientist. “To date, there has been little to no attention given to social behavior in octopuses.”

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