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Researchers study cuttlefish at the Brighton Sealife Centre

* 29 April 2003 *

Researchers study cuttlefish at the Brighton Sealife Centre

The strange and fascinating world of cuttlefish - the "Martians" of the seas - will be studied by University of Sussex researchers at a new facility at the Sealife Centre in Brighton.

"We've now got a laboratory at the Sealife Centre and while we're studying the cuttlefish, people will be able to watch us at work," says Dr Adam Shohet, Research Fellow in Neuroscience.

Dr Shohet and Dr Daniel Osorio have been working with the Sealife Centre on the collaboration for the last 18 months, fitting out the laboratory and designing an educational display for visitors.

"Cuttlefish are the nearest we can get to Martians," says Dr Osorio. "They are very like vertebrates in some ways in that they are mobile with big brains, but they have evolved from snails so they have come from a completely different evolutionary route and they do everything differently."

Cuttlefish are cephalopods - meaning 'head foot' - and they are native to British waters. They are voracious predators with eight arms and two feeding tentacles which they shoot out at the speed of a bullet to grab their prey and pull it in to their beak.

They are also extremely vulnerable to attack, as their shells have evolved to be on the inside (the cuttlebones used in budgies' cages).

For this reason, cuttlefish have developed an incredible camouflage ability. "In less than a second they can completely change their colour. They've had to become masters of disguise," says Dr Shohet.

The camouflage system is also used for social communication and the Sussex team has developed image-processing software with which to study this behaviour.

Cuttlefish have also developed a defensive response which releases mildly narcotic ink to stun attackers and give them time to escape. This sepia ink is used as writing ink and to colour rice and pasta.

"Cuttlefish are very sensitive to water quality and at the Sealife Centre we have readily available sea water instead of the artificial sea water we have previously been having to use," says Dr Shohet.

Ex-Sussex student Emma Kelman, who recently completed her Masters degree in cuttlefish behaviour and who now works at the Sealife Centre, initiated the project with Peter Jones, the Centre's curator.

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