Backyard Brains Logo

Neuroscience for Everyone!

+1 (855) GET-SPIKES (855-438-7745)

items ()

Insane in the Chromatophores

During experiments on the giant axons of the Longfin Inshore Squid (loligo pealei) at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA; we were fascinated by the fast color-changing nature of the squid’s skin. Squids (like many other cephalopods) can quickly control pigmented cells called chromatophores to reflect light. The Longfin Inshore has 3 different chromatophore colors: Brown, Red, and Yellow. Each chromatophore has tiny muscles along the circumference of the cell that can contract to reveal the pigment underneath.

We tested our cockroach leg stimulus protocol on the squid’s chromatophores. We used a suction electrode to attach to the squid’s fin nerve, then connected the electrode to an iPod nano as our stimulator. The results were both interesting and beautiful. The video below is a view through an 8x microscope zoomed in on the dorsal side of the fin.

We’d like to give a shout out to our gracious and brilliant hosts for making this possible: the Methods in Computational Neuroscience and the Neuroinformatics Courses at the MBL. Paloma T. Gonzalez-Bellido of Roger Hanlon’s Lab in the Marine Resource Center of the Marine Biological Labs helped us with the preparation. Paloma studies iridophores (iridescent cells) of the squid. You can read their latest paper at the The Royal Society.

Update: There are some questions as to what is happening and how this works. An iPod plays music by converting digital music to a small current that it sends to tiny magnets in the earbuds. The magnets are connected to cones that vibrate and produce sound.

Since this is the same electrical current that neurons use to communicate, we cut off the ear buds and instead placed the wire into the fin nerve. When the iPod sends bass frequencies (<100Hz) the axons in the nerves have enough charge to fire an action potential. This will in turn cause the muscles in the chromatophores to contract. A better explanation as well as a few more demos can be found on our TED talk:


  1. Thank you for making my dreams come true

    Comment by bryan kennedy — 2012-Aug-23 @ 15:43

  2. This is incredible, but next time, you might want to go with this song instead:

    Also, I wrote it up here:

    Comment by Eliot Van Buskirk — 2012-Aug-23 @ 16:13

  3. Nice project, but next time don’t post just to YouTube. YouTube auto-filters a lot of pop music, and this gets your video – and thus your work – auto-blocked in a lot of non-US countries (specifically Germany in my case, where GEMA’s ongoing dispute with YouTube means almost nothing gets through). Maybe post to Vimeo as well?

    Comment by ExecutorElassus — 2012-Aug-23 @ 21:35

  4. Fascinating experiment! However, I can’t find anywhere on your site what your ethical policy is regarding the use of animals in your experiments. Do you have one? Am I looking in the wrong places? Thanks!

    Comment by Ginny — 2012-Aug-24 @ 10:40

  5. hey!

    love what you guys are doing!

    i second the vimeo vote! i also can’t watch this because of copyright.

    Comment by chris — 2012-Aug-24 @ 10:57

  6. A Suiss friend was very excited about the experiment and sent me the link.
    Unfortunately, the German GEMA do not allow to watch the video, because the music of SME is not
    registered here. )-: Stupid!

    Comment by Kurt — 2012-Aug-24 @ 11:08

  7. Was the squid harmed?

    Comment by Christian Stadler — 2012-Aug-24 @ 12:57

  8. You guys can just tell other scientist to pack it in, because I’m pretty sure science is now OVER!

    Comment by Greg Forsyth — 2012-Aug-24 @ 16:54

  9. I appreciate only part of what you are trying to show here. But it seems to disregard the squid. Do you know if you are causing it pain at all? Is this sort of experiment ethical? Perhaps more justification needed here than “interesting and beautiful”.

    Comment by Dayle — 2012-Aug-24 @ 23:09

  10. Good idea, ExecutorElassus, Chris and Kurt. We uploaded it to Vimeo:

    Comment by Greg — 2012-Aug-24 @ 23:37

  11. Christian, Dayle – The squid was dead at the time of these experiments. Ginny – see our ethics statement here:

    Comment by Greg — 2012-Aug-24 @ 23:52

  12. Could make a great pair of leather chaps out of squid, to go out dancing.

    Comment by Baxta — 2012-Aug-25 @ 02:04

  13. I hope the theme of the song don´t come true with this experience on animals. I´m glad to knowlegde of this experience.

    Comment by Inês — 2012-Aug-25 @ 09:21

  14. I have to admit I did wonder if it was alive and I am glad to read that it was dead. Maybe if you explained why you do all of these experiments and what you are hoping to learn people wouldn’t be as shortsighted. I am a huge animal lover but all these people should keep in mind how scientists have made so many breakthroughs in the care everyone receives.

    Comment by Julie — 2012-Aug-25 @ 19:50

  15. This video is incredibly awesome and I can’t stop watching it!!! Kudos to you folks. For the people questioning the ethics of the actions involved I will simply say that regardless of the complexity of this, and other cephalopods the fact remains that millions of them wind up on our plates each year; most likely having perished from far less humane circumstances than the star of this clip. Perhaps it would be more productive to concern yourselves with more pressing matters.

    Comment by Aprulz — 2012-Aug-26 @ 01:00

  16. If you use you can watch the videos in other countries in most cases. Need to upload a video of the entire squid.

    Comment by Andrew — 2012-Aug-26 @ 04:25

  17. Great discovery. Science is so cool because it’s not always as technical as most would think. But this experiment could actually help a human some day, hear, see, feel, smell ECT. Good for you guys, and your work. As far as the people asking what the squids going through, well think about what the plants and animals went through in the Amazons to help us find many Cures of today. C’mon if you really want to make a difference, instead of concern for the squid, go help the homeless or millions of starving families. And that’s only here in The States! Woods Hole students keep up the facinating work!

    Comment by Lynette — 2012-Aug-26 @ 10:40

  18. Now hook up one of the cuttle fish that can change its form and you have a beginning for a Virtual Reality interface that works on both visual and tactile level.

    Comment by s1570 — 2012-Aug-26 @ 13:47

  19. I was fascinated and amused by this at first because I thought music was being played to a live squid and it was reacting to the music by changing colors, but when I found out that this was produced using a dead squid and electrodes it was no longer fascinating…..

    Comment by Shayna — 2012-Aug-26 @ 15:20

  20. I can’t wait for the vid of a guy, with his skin twitching to the sounds of Run DMC, and iSquid wires tapped right into his cortex. Oh and he’ll be dead—stand by for our ethics policy…that vid will be *awesome*.

    Comment by Mark Sanders — 2012-Aug-26 @ 19:41

  21. Awesome clip. Cool stuff. Also love the people concerned with the well being of the Squid. If it wasn’t dead the experiment wouldn’t work because it’s own internal stuff would still be firing.

    Comment by Eric — 2012-Aug-26 @ 21:11

  22. love it, but i’d really love to see the whole squid with it’s colours pulsing, not just a close up of its chromatophores. is that possible? i’m certain everyone else would like to see that as well. thanks for this bit of useful insanity, things like this keep a lot of people sane!

    Comment by alan emerson — 2012-Aug-27 @ 06:30

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment