Watch male cuttlefish fight over a female in the wild

Violence and escalation may typify mating-related conflict


MACHO MACHO MAN  Field footage hints that male cuttlefish conflicts over who gets to mate with a female may be more violent in the wild than those observed in captivity.

J. Allen, D. Akkaynak

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The Bro Code apparently does not exist among wild cuttlefish. The first field video of male European cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) getting physical over a female shows that they are not above stealing another guy’s girl.

Cuttlefish, cephalopods known for their ability to alter their skin color, have complex and competitive courtship rituals. While scientists have extensively studied common European cuttlefish fights over mates, observing such altercations has proven elusive outside of the lab.

In 2011, biologists Justine Allen of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Derya Akkaynak of the University of Haifa in Israel lucked out. They were in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey following a female cuttlefish with an underwater camera to study camouflage, when a male cuttlefish approached the female, and the pair mated. Soon after, another male appeared on the scene and edged in on the female. A battle of ink and arms ensued. “I just remember there being a lot of ink everywhere — so much ink,” Allen recalls.

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COME AT ME BRO Researchers captured this rare footage of two male common European cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) fighting over a female in 2011.Production: H. Thompson; Video: Derya Akkaynak, Justine Allen; Music: Papalin/MusOpen (CC BY 3.0)

It took the original male three tries to reclaim his mate, the team writes in the July issue of The American Naturalist. Each attempt escalated in intensity. That’s consistent with a game theory model where opponents assess peers’ abilities as well as their own, the scientists suggest.

The footage confirms that males in the wild use an arsenal of aggressive behaviors to oust romantic rivals — tactics like darkening the skin around their eyes and face, displaying a zebra pattern on their body, spraying ink while jetting through the water, biting and wrestling. Lab bouts pale in comparison to the viciousness of this encounter.

Determining whether any of this is typical for fights between males of this species requires more data and more cuttlefish.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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