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Could a mammal camouflage like a cuttlefish?

The cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) camouflages itself by contracting the muscles around tiny, colored skin cells called chromatophores. The cells come in several colors and act as pixels across the cuttlefish's body, changing their size to alter the pattern on the animal's skin.

Could a mammal do something like this, I've only heard of mammals camouflaging by being born the same color as there surroundings. I'm making an creature with fur or something like it that can camouflage similar to a cuddle fish. Is this scientifically possible?

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  • $\begingroup$ The mammal would have to be fur-less or nearly so... that's just dead tissue, no way to change its color quickly, or to control what color it might be. However, there's no reason that mammalian skin couldn't have chromatophores or their equivalent. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Sep 21, 2021 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ There are many mammals which have one coloration in winter and a different coloration in summer. Stoats are a well-known example; in summer they are sandy-brown with white belly, in winter it they are fully snow-white. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 21, 2021 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ My cat is a superb hider, blending in with a wide variety of household backgrounds. Now I know why.... $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Sep 21, 2021 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ AlexP you are right, but this process is the molting... old wool falls out and new wool of a different color grows back. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2021 at 14:16

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in principle, yes (but it's complicated)

There are four major challenges you'd need to overcome:

  1. mammals have fur
  2. mammals don't have the right kind of coloration cells
  3. there's more to cephalopod camo than chromatophores
  4. you'd need a means of controlling all of those cells

fur: As has been pointed out, mammals have fur and that's not going to be something you can change unless you completely redesign how fur works. But, there are two easy fixes for this one. First, many mammals have areas of the body that are not covered in fur or have a light covering (e.g., faces in primates). That might be useful for color change as communication but not really for camo. Second, some mammals have little or no fur on their bodies (e.g., H. sapiens). So, you need a hairless mammal.

coloration cells: As noted in the question, cuttlefish use coloration cells called chromatophores. Mammals use melanocytes for coloration. So, your mammals would need a different coloration mechanism at the cellular level.

cephalopod camo is complicated: In addition to chromatophores, cuttlefish rely on small muscles in the skin which can change the texture of the skin. These are vaguely like the arrector pili muscles found near mammal hair follicles that cause hairs to stand on end (goose bumps). But our system is tied to the hair follicles and we already removed the fur so we can see the skin effectively. If you want this level of camo, your "mammals" will need to evolve (or be engineered with) the texture muscles that cephalopods use.

control: Finally, you need a mechanism to control all of those cells. Cephalopods use a lot of brain power to make those changes. You'll either need to give up some other brain functions (language? social management?) to handle the new system or you'll need to grow some extra brain. Obviously, a bigger brain would be ideal but that either means making the head bigger (which has implications for the rest of the body structure) or it means evolving a more distributed nervous system (again, like the cephalopods).

So, yes, it can be done but it has a lot of interconnections and can't just be tacked on.

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It'd probably get in the way.

When it comes to animals that can change color there's usually 3 main methods:

1-the creature slowly changes the color of fur/scales depending on the environment and its age (most common examples are mammals which have completely white fur in the snowy winter and more brownish fur in the warmer seasons. This one is great if you don't need to constantly blend in with very different surroundings, and it's much easier to have

2-the creature has transparent coverings. Seen in chameleon scales, their skin isn't exactly exposed, but the scales aren't opaque, and allow their color changing mechanism to show well. This might be hard to implement with fur

3-no coverings, there's only the birthday suit. One key similarity between octopuses, squids and cuttlefish is that at most their skin will be covered with a layer of mucus. Particularly in octopuses and cuttlefish, their camouflage comes from a complex combination of color changing cells, called chromatophores and from a muscular layer that allows their skin to change texture to match that of the environment. These 2 factors are what give these animals their superb camouflage. I assume this is what you want your creature to be able to do.

The problem with fur is that, being basically a number of dead cell filaments, they don't exactly change color on demand, nor can they be finely controlled. That means that even if we were talking about hairs with no melanin, we'd still have the problem of white hair obscuring the color changing skin and be in inevitably moved around in potentially problematic ways as the skin morphed to match the texture of the background. Camouflage at its most basic form is about making it hard to tell where the animal ends and the environment begins and at its best making it impossible to tell there's not just environment there, and I'd say it wouldn't be hard to figure out that the tree chunk filled with white fur is not really a tree.

So, by default, if you want camouflage like that of a cuttlefish or octopus, you'd also need to compromise on the drawbacks of such pristine camouflage, such as the need for an uncovered skin as well as the need for a protective layer, since such a skin is normally a bit more fragile since it can't be too thick (also you're on the right track looking more at the cuttlefish, because the octopus' amazing camouflage gets a boost from its soft body, its lack of limiting hard structures allow it to further match the environment by reshaping its body to an extent).

So basically, it'd probably be problematic for an animal with a skin like that of the cuttlefish to have fir. If it doesn't participate in camouflage in any way, it gets in the way of the camouflaging skin, and the only way to fix that is to share the camouflage duty through hair pigmentation, limiting the skin's dynamic ability. A potential solution is that the cubs, being still young and inexperienced, have a layer of fur that matches its surroundings, both serving as protection to the more sensitive skin and protecting it from a potential accident where it takes on bright colors while still giving it camouflage capabilities. As the creature enters adulthood and reaches sexual maturity however, it slowly begins to loose most of the hair in its body, becoming more dynamic in their camouflaging skills. Chances are that the creatures seen with fur are still sexually immature juveniles in a tough spot because they still haven't lost all of their hair and are learning how to fully use their skin, which is why they're more easily spotted than the skilled adult stalking you.

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Well, it definitely has to be - really special fur. With special vessels, (which the fur doesn't have), cells and nerves; However, this mammal could be a naked as the human,domesticated swine or "naked mole rat" (Heterocephalus glaber).

If we are talking about a cuttlefish with sepia ink here, what do you think about the released cloud of some substances that, on the one hand, could create a short-term illusion, and on the other, simply paint the fur in a different color:> Perhaps this is an absurd idea, I don’t know :) Or glands among the fur cover - which dyeing (precisely dyeing chemically) fur in other colors...

And about the molting (like as hares and others in winter) - well, here are needed a faster growth rate of fur, of course. "in dogs, the hair shaft grows at a rate of about 7.5-9.0 mm per month" I don't know if there are ways to speed up and stimulate this process at a pace that suits you(maybe dog breeders and sheep breeders do something like this). But still, it can hardly be faster than a day or more - I cannot imagine that this happens really quickly ... although ... In any case, this molt, even if it is fast, cannot be frequent; Otherwise, the animal will just spend all its metabolic resources to frequent grow fur.

P.S. The Darell (Gerald Malcolm Durrell, "Three Singles To Adventure") also writes about a sloth which has grooves in the hairs of its fur, in which there exist a microscopic alga that changes hue of fur to green. It is possible to combine such symbiotic creatures and the chemical regulation with the help of glands.

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