Cephalopod Basics

Cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish, Nautilus) have captured the imagination of scientists and the general public since Aristotle. These predatory mollusks are an ancient group, known from at least the Late Cambrian and today comprising more than 700 species. Cephalopods range in size from the pygmy squids (thumbnail-sized adults) to the colossal and giant squids (18 meters in total length), which are the largest known invertebrates. Cephalopods are believed to be among the most “advanced” invertebrates, having evolved large, highly differentiated brains, a sophisticated set of sensory organs that includes vertebrate-like eyes, and fast jet-propelled locomotion. A particularly striking trait of cephalopods is that they are masters of rapid adaptive coloration, having the ability to change quickly the texture, pattern, color and brightness of their skin. Dynamic camouflage helps the animals evade detection by predators and approach prey with stealth; the same systems produce signals for communication with other members of their species. The remarkable morphological and physiological innovations of cephalopods provide the scientific community with a tremendous opportunity for insight into mechanisms of evolutionary convergence and innovation in structure and function.


Cephalopods have diversified to inhabit all oceans of the world, from benthic to pelagic zones, from intertidal areas to the deep sea, and from the polar regions to the tropics. They share the “behavioral space” in their many marine habitats with teleost fishes and marine mammals, placing them in some of the most competitive ecohabitats on Earth. Cephalopods are ecologically important for the central position they play in trophic predator-prey relationships; they are a primary food source for marine mammals and for many harvested fish species. Their importance in the food web is often underestimated, but they constitute a crucial element in coastal ecosystem equilibrium. Moreover, cephalopods themselves are the target of large commercial fisheries worldwide, with an annual harvest of two million metric tons of squid alone.


For more on cephalopod evolution and taxonomy, check out the Tree of Life Cephalopod page.