Image courtesy of MIT

It's no doubt that, with a repertoire of everything from colorful coral to a poisonous sea snake, the octopus could win any costume contest handily. But while most of us are picking our way through fake fangs and unnecessarily revealing outfits, one team of researchers is working to bring the octopus's camouflaging skills to the human world—for real.

Octopuses use color, light reflection and texture to vanish against their backgrounds. Recent advances have spawned materials that can alter their color based on light conditions. But to get the full octopus-level guise going, we still have a long way to go.

A new group, however, is taking us a bit closer. They have developed a material that can change color and brightness as well as texture. A paper describing the advance was published last month in Nature Communications. "Cephalopods can display dazzling patterns of colors by selectively contracting muscles to reversibly activate chromatophores—pigment-containing cells under their skins," the authors write in their paper. "We got inspired by this idea—from this wonderful creature," said coauthor Zuanhe Zhao in a prepared statement.

The material uses an elastomer (a type of flexible polymer) that can be activated with electricity. A change in voltage activates specific molecules in the elastomer to change color and texture—or brightness and texture—simultaneously.

What could we humans use such a material for? Military camouflage—for vehicles perhaps as well as humans—is an obvious choice. It would allow the camo to change based on the immediate environment. But, say the paper's authors, it could also be used for flexible screens or even biomedical devices. Not to mention pretty killer Halloween costumes.

Learn more about the strange world of the octopus at Nerd Nite in Denver on October 30 (where there will even be an octopus costume contest—color-changing elastomers optional). If you can’t make it, check out Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen