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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

  23. YOU GUYS! Lmao–I think I am the only one in the comment list so far who actually knows what this song is about–could *not* stop laughing. Please post updates if school teachers start using this video in their curriculum. BTW saw you get a technology award at SfN a few years ago, very glad to see your venture continues to grow. Humbling to know that what I do with 100K’s of lab equipment can also be done with one of your boxes and a little perserverence. 🙂

    Comment by Matt — 2012-Aug-27 @ 13:08

  24. Worked in this lab; I did not work under Dr. Gonzalez-Bellido but I did get the chance to interact with her many times and get an idea of the research she and others using this preparation were doing .

    I don’t know the condition of the squid that was used for this, but I will say that

    1) it was probably killed humanely, specifically by terminal anesthesia in MgCl2, decapitation, and decerebration;

    2) this kind of preparation is in fact useful for research, and in this preparation the fin nerve, specifically is stimulated;

    3) I dunno if this PARTICULAR application of squid death was particularly ethical because it wasn’t used for research purposes, but this is the exact same thing we do for research.

    Comment by Katharine — 2012-Aug-28 @ 12:17

  25. Given the existential threat to humanity posed by the emerging cephalopod menace, I commend your research. I stand firmly by your treatment of these highly dangerous competitor species.

    We must understand the enemy in time to prevent a catastrophe in their inevitable rise against our species. And we must prepare the ginger and shoyu for our victory celebrations.

    Thank you for taking a stand against the harbingers of the cephalopod threat.

    Comment by Lao Bao Jun — 2012-Aug-28 @ 19:59

  26. Should have stimulated the squid with “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes.
    Beyond that, will pressure waves from underwater speakers stimulate the chromatophores the way electro-stimulation does?

    Comment by David — 2012-Aug-29 @ 14:53

  27. I would love to see the results using Beethoven.

    Toward the end of the video, I noticed chromatophore response when there didn’t seem to be any stimulus observable to my ear. Would this indicate some coding was present that my auditory range could not detect? Can squid tissue be utilized to detect hidden coding in TV shows or movies or even in other media? What would you find, if your looked?

    Rap produces massive amounts of energy-containment within the human system that then must be released as physical exercise or sex, or used somehow. It is very distressing to most systems.

    Comment by Robert Fay — 2012-Aug-30 @ 13:03

  28. How did the squid feel about it? Was it alive?

    Comment by Anonymous — 2012-Aug-30 @ 19:23

  29. I love this!

    Comment by Momo — 2012-Sep-02 @ 10:22

  30. this was way cool. but i wonder what kind of a weirdo had the idea to put music in a squid…..

    Comment by youdon'tknowmwh — 2012-Sep-09 @ 18:26

  31. It’s going to be finish of mine day, except before ending I am
    reading this wonderful piece of writing to increase my experience.

    Comment by rameur — 2017-Feb-23 @ 22:58

  32. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.

    I think that you ought to publish more about this topic, it may not be a
    taboo subject but usually folks don’t speak about such issues.
    To the next! Many thanks!!

    Comment by proiettore Classifica — 2017-Feb-26 @ 00:13

  33. Hej.

    I would like to know, How long after termination of The animal Can you still stimulate The nerves.

    Comment by Anonymous — 2017-Mar-10 @ 15:17

  34. It’s mostly Vivisectionists themselves that argue that Vivisection ( the cutting of or more commonly used term for live animal experimentation ) has had any great benefit to science or medicine, and anyone can see that would be biased. A great deal of both scientists and doctors on the other hand claim that animal experiments have benefited us very little, and in fact have harmed or hindered medical and scientific progress. ( Just one example is the many years scientists wasted trying to kill monkeys with AIDS, (monkeys get something like the flu from human AIDS but it does not kill them) in the meantime how many died of AIDS while millions of dollars were misdirected to these wasteful experiments.

    Most early medical breakthroughs had a great deal with studying the anatomy of the dead, and having been banned by the church, animals were used as a poor replacement. But many continued the rules of the church aside, and we learned proper human anatomy, and circulatory systems etc thanks to human cadavers . Thankfully the church loosened its rules on this and in the meantime many scientific breakthroughs have happened during the use of animal experiments but we cannot know if it was a direct reluctance of if in fact these animal experiments actually slowed down or hindered our medical progress. If we put too much trust in animals studies, we would not have life saving aspirin today, thanks to it’s adverse affects on cats, (animals and people are NOT the same and you can not correctly extrapolate the results on a study on dogs to people for example.)

    If we were not by law required to do animal testing might we have come up with computer mapping and research on a cellular level, would we benefited more from clinical studies and population studies and humane and voluntary human studies where the real answers come from, we will never know will we? But we have failure after failure as the animal experimentation industry force feeds injects burns or gases many animals, with random amounts of said drug in various forms, in some random system impossible to extrapolate to humans they deem this drug fit or this drug not, and they put it out to public after a tiny trial of a very carefully selected group over a short period of time then off it goes on our shelves, any potential lawsuits will surely be covered by the billions that come in and “ hey we tested it on animals , what more could we have done?” They say. And animal tests are big money, 99 percent of the NIH funding goes to animal experiments. Then you wonder why we are making such little progress in our health.

    With new methods, few if any animals need be harmed and the potential is endless . I’m not an expert but I suggest anyone read Sacrrd Cows And Golden Geese” the human cost of animal experimentation by Greek and Greek for a professional voice on the matter.

    Comment by Lame — 2018-Feb-18 @ 01:35

  35. I do give credit for the pain killers and I have to admit personally my sympathy for cockroaches might be personally less than primates but I can’t justify needless suffering period , and as cool as it seems to get kids into science and a robotic cockroach seems cool, I think sending a message to kids that young that other life is there for our use and entertainment even, might not be a great start.

    And for people that say “ go feed a starving kid” animal advocates are more likely than others to take up other humanitarian causes, and ask yourself what you’ve done for anyone today, ( without reward , your girlfriend or mom doesn’t count) yeah probably not much

    Comment by Kristina not Lame Lol — 2018-Feb-18 @ 01:44

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