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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Duke to Share a $7.5 Million Study on Octopuses

From Triangle Business Journal

May 20, 2009

Researchers at Duke University will share part of a $7.5 million grant to study how octopuses and squid use mental powers to camouflage themselves.

The five-year Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) study is funded by the Office of Naval Research and includes researchers from Duke, the University of California at Santa Barbara and UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Sonke Johnsen, a Duke associate professor of biology and the project’s principal investigator, says they are looking to study how cephalopods, the hundreds of species classified as octopuses or squids, see the world and respond.

Cephalopods have the ability to adjust their skin colors and patterns to hide from predators or prey. Some are even able to emit their own light to eliminate shadows that would expose their silhouettes.

To conduct their study, the researchers will construct a “Star Trek”-like underwater holodeck that will allow researchers to manipulate lighting to mimic ocean conditions and see how enclosed creatures respond.

"We will be able to change the colors, resolution, speed and everything else so that we can step inside their visual world under laboratory conditions," Johnsen said. "We will be able to show them natural scenes, but then also scenes that have been altered in different ways. The holodeck will be like a virtual reality machine for the ocean. In the world of marine biology we know of no other like it."

A second group of researchers led by the University of Texas at Austin will work toward similar goals. They also received $7.5 million from the Navy.

The Duke-led researchers will conduct expeditions on islands off California and the Pacific Island of Palau while the Texas group will work in the Florida Keys and the Gulf of Mexico.

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