Behind the Image: Camera-shy Octupi

Can you see it yet? You'd be forgiven for thinking this was just an image of coral but it is, in fact, an octopus marvelously camouflaging itself. Michelle Achlatis, from the University of Queensland in Australia, took this shot - the Editor's pick in the BMC Ecology Image Competition - while scuba-diving and here she tells us about her encounter with this bashful mollusc.

What is your profession?

I am a Ph.D. candidate in Marine Ecology at the Coral Reef Ecosystems Laboratory at the University of Queensland in Australia.

What type of research are you involved in?

The lab I work in is interested in all things coral reefs. We study a variety of key reef organisms on the genetic, physiological and ecological level, we examine their roles on coral reefs and we assess how these ecosystems are responding to climate change. My Ph.D. research, in particular, focuses on a specific type of sponges, namely bioeroding sponges, which excavate and inhabit coral skeletons often killing the coral in the process. My project aims to understand the metabolic dynamics of sponge bioerosion on the present and future coral reefs.

Why did you become interested in this area of research?

As part of my studies I was lucky enough to visit a tropical coral reef, and then I was hooked. I won’t pretend that what drew my interest was the importance of coral reefs for global marine biodiversity, their productivity and the livelihoods they support, or the significant ecosystem goods and services they provide as I had learned in the classroom. At the time, it was just the plain beauty of the place. Years later this ecosystem still has so much to teach me.

How did you become interested in photography?

I think I owe this interest to my auntie’s coffee table – there was always some wildlife magazine laying around. As an undergraduate student, my involvement with the amateur photography group of the University of Crete (Greece) was a great inspiration. Wildlife and landscapes are still my favorite picture subjects.

Where and how was this photo taken?

This photo was taken during working hours at Harry’s Bommie on Heron Reef, southern Great Barrier Reef in Australia in February 2016. My colleagues and I were on scuba hanging in the water column in between sampling times for a coral physiology experiment we were conducting just a few meters away. I saw the octopus from the corner of my eye. It saw me too and instantly transformed itself into a coral, in shape and color. It wasn’t fast enough to hide, so instead, it froze in place. I couldn’t have wished for an easier, more stable shot.

Why were you there at the time?

Heron Island is a small coral cay near the Tropic of Capricorn and it is surrounded by a fringing platform reef. The University of Queensland runs a small research station on the island. The station is frequented by marine and terrestrial researchers who come to conduct their work at this relatively untouched offshore site. Together with my colleagues, we perform most of our field-work and experiments on Heron.

Can you explain a bit more about the image?

Coral reefs are underwater forests formed over years by the slow build-up of coral skeletons. What makes them special is that thanks to the partnership between corals and photosynthetic dinoflagellates, coral reefs can thrive in shallow sunlit waters that would otherwise be too poor nutritionally to sustain such biodiverse ecosystems. Multiple other life forms are housed in the complex framework that corals build. The image exemplifies how some of the smartest residents of reefs use the habitat to shelter and camouflage against predators.

What about this scene particularly interested you?

To be honest, an octopus is in itself a photogenic creature. But the camouflaging behavior it exhibited with the coral in the background was even more worth a shot. At the time, in the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef abnormally high seawater temperatures were pushing the symbiosis between corals and dinoflagellates beyond all limits. The reef was undergoing a mass coral bleaching event. Down south at Heron corals were spared the heat, yet I couldn’t help but wonder what the fate of such an octopus would be -or the fate of various other fauna- on a bleached or dead reef.

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