Master of Disguise


Like an octopus, the tidepool sculpin, Oligocottus maculatus, can change color to blend with its background. The sculpin's chameleon skills are slow and subtle compared to the quick-change artistry of an octopus, which flashes color in a fraction of a second, allowing it to instantly vanish. Nevertheless, the sculpin is a master of disguise. This fish that hunts tiny invertebrates in tidepools and avoids birds and larger fish can change costumes to match a broad palette of colors, from the tan of sand (top photo) to the pink of coralline algae (bottom photo).

A swirl of sand betrays the presence of camouflaged sculpins when they dart away from creatures creeping toward their tidepool. If a great blue heron happens to be hunting in the tidelands when a sculpin stirs the sand, the fish might disappear in the bird's dagger beak.

When sculpins scatter at my approach, I stand still and wait for them to settle. I like to watch the fish blend into the bottom of their pool, disappearing amid rocks or sand or algae, where these ambush predators remain immobile till tiny creatures wander past.

Sculpins snatch worms, crabs, shrimp--whatever will fit in their mouths--with explosive motion. Then they settle back to the bottom of a pool, where their shifting colors conceal them from both predators and prey.

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