Imitating another’s biological systems is nothing new. Even we humans indulge in copycat behavior to advance our odds of survival. Thousands of preteen boys who styled their hair like Justin Bieber may think they are simply the vanguard of cool, but they are following the timeless practice of attracting a mate by taking on the appearance of a successful attractor.
But in the case of the black-marble jawfish (Stalix histrio), researchers have found a new spin on the old mimicry game – mimicking a mimic.
The timid jawfish is something of an underwater cave dweller, hiding in sand burrows and afraid to stray far in search of food because it is an awkward swimmer and easy prey for streamlined predators. But its neighbor, the mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), had long ago found an adaption strategy to foil aggressive predators – it can shift its shape, movements and color to impersonate toxic lionfish, flatfish and sea snakes, each a species avoided by predators.
While filming during a reef diving trip in Indonesia, researcher Godehard Kopp of the University of Gottingen in Germany filmed this unique partnership between the jawfish and the shape-shifting octopus. He filmed a black-marble jawfish closely tagging behind the octopus as it moved across the sandy seafloor. The jawfish possessed brown-and-white markings similar to ones on the octopus it was following that made it difficult to spot among its many arms. The octopus seemed to be unaware or unconcerned about its new partner on the feeding grounds.
Unfortunately, degradation of shallow fisheries habitats may be closing the window to our ability to discover and learn from these unique biological processes. Awareness of these natural marvels is key to taking steps to protect marine habitats worldwide.