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New “octopus material” can blend in with its surroundings

If we had to create a camouflage material inspired by an animal, the octopus probably wouldn’t be our first port of call. But a group of scientists have used the camouflage tactics of octopi and other “cephalopods” like squid and cuttlefish to develop a new material that can, up to a point, mimic its surroundings. And it’s really, really cool*.

In case you’re not up on your octopus camouflage techniques, here’s how they do it. Cephalopod skin has three layers. The innermost layer senses the colour of the surroundings, the top one changes colour to reflect those surroundings, and the middle layer shifts around these pigmented cells to create a camouflaged pattern.

The new material uses a similar system:  electrodes on the base layer sense whether the area around the material is black or white, and alert the middle layer, which heats up if white areas are sensed. The top layer is naturally black, but turns transparent under heat, allowing white to show through.  

These, unfortunately, are currently the only colours it can do: John Rogers, one of the study’s authors, told Newsweek, “It’s nowhere near being relevant for active camouflage”. But the scientists hope to expand the material’s abilities to reflect other colours, and in their research paper they say the material could be useful for “consumer, industrial, and military” applications. Invisible buildings, invisible tanks, invisible trousers – the possibilities are endless.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This paragraph previously contained a reference to the humble chameleon, which we posited to be far more famous for changing colour to suit its surroundings. But on Twitter, Mr Tom Phillips of Buzzfeed UK pointed out that chameleons in fact change colour not in response to their environment, but as a communications tool. This is presumably why the researchers declined to name their new product “chameleon material”. We are happy to make this correction.
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