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Meet an eight-legged actor

If you think the Oscar nominees are good at pretending, wait till you hear what this octopus can do

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At first, it's just a lump creeping across the sand. Then it speeds up. It flattens its body, pulling all eight arms in tight. Instead of jetting like an octopus, it moves its body in a wave. What is this thing? An octopus or a flatfish?

Several years ago, divers found this very strange octopus. It was the size of a child's bicycle tire and swam in the warm, tropical waters of Indonesia. It lived in a mucky area where few people had been scuba diving. Octopuses are famous for being able to change color and shape, but this one was special.

Divers said it could imitate a whole cast of other animals: flatfish, mantis shrimp, sea snakes, jellyfish, anemones, and even lionfish. They called it "the mimic octopus."

"When I first heard about the octopus," says Denis Tackett, an underwater photographer, "it sounded impossible. Then, "One day, I thought I had found a new type of mantis shrimp. I got closer and saw it was really the mimic octopus."

Is it imitating a bed or a car radio?

Divers showed scientists photos of the new octopus acting like other animals - many other animals. But figuring out the octopus's act was sometimes like looking for shapes in clouds. "Some people were getting really carried away," says Tom Tregenza, a biologist at the University of Leeds, in England. "We looked at photographs of the octopus and joked, 'This one is doing a double bed, and this one is doing a car stereo.' "

Scientists found it hard to believe that the octopus could look and act like so many other sea creatures. Some animals mimic other animals, but no creature imitates more than one. At least, that is what scientists used to think.

Why does one animal imitate another? Mimicry is a strategy some animals use to try to trick predators into leaving them alone. They do this by pretending to be a different animal - usually an animal the predator knows is dangerous or tastes bad.


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