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What marine animal can change colors?

The ability to change body coloration is a fascinating phenomenon seen in many marine animals. Rapid color changes are used for camouflage, communication, thermoregulation, and intimidation of predators or competitors. This remarkable adaptation helps marine creatures evade predators, attract mates, defend territories, and regulate body temperature.


One of the most common uses of color change in marine animals is camouflage. By altering their hue and patterns, animals can blend into their surroundings, making it difficult for predators to spot them. Some common examples of marine animals that use color change for camouflage include:

  • Octopuses – Masters of disguise, octopuses can change both color and texture to seamlessly match rocks, coral, or seaweed.
  • Flatfish – Fish like flounder and sole darken or lighten their topside to match the seafloor below.
  • Squid – Squid alter their skin patterns and colors to camouflage with the water around them.

Being able to camouflage provides a survival advantage in the open ocean where there is little cover to hide. By blending in, camouflaging animals can avoid being detected by predators.


Color changes are also used to visually communicate with other animals. Specific color patterns can send messages related to mating, warning off competitors, indicating mood or social status, and more. Marine animals that use color for communication include:

  • Cephalopods – Squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish display intricate color patterns to attract mates, defend territories, and threaten rivals.
  • Chameleons – Small marine fish like the chameleon wrasse change color to signal aggression or submission.
  • Crustaceans – Mantis shrimp, lobsters, and crabs use color to indicate social hierarchy.

Displaying colors provides a way to visually interact over distance in the marine environment. Specific colors, patterns, and flashes can get messages across clearly without needing physical contact.


Some marine animals also use color change to regulate their internal body temperature. By altering the amount of light and radiation absorbed or reflected, an animal can warm up or cool down. Examples include:

  • Giant clams – Adjust the darkness of their mantles to increase or decrease heat absorption from sunlight.
  • Golden perch – Darken their skin to absorb more heat in cold water.
  • Tuna – Dilate and constrict blood vessels under their skin to vary heat radiation.

The ability to change color gives these animals better control over their body temperature. This helps them adapt to varying water temperatures in different habitats and depths.


Vivid color displays are used by some marine creatures to intimidate potential predators or competitors. Suddenly flashing bright colors or patterns may surprise an aggressor long enough to allow escape. Intimidating color changes occur in animals like:

  • Clown fish – Use their vivid orange hue and contrasting bands to warn other fish away from their territory.
  • Squid – Release pulsating chromatic displays to deter approaching enemies.
  • Stingrays – Flash an ominous dark color when threatened.

The bold colors and unexpected flashes make the animal appear dangerous or unpalatable, scaring away the threat.

Mechanisms of Color Change

Marine creatures use various physiological and cellular mechanisms to achieve fast color changes. These include:

  • Chromatophores – Special pigment cells that expand and contract to alter skin coloration.
  • Reflective plates – Stacked purine crystals that can reflect or transmit light.
  • Bioluminescence – Light produced through chemical reactions by symbiotic bacteria.

Being able to swiftly activate these color-changing adaptations is essential for camouflage, communication, and survival in the open ocean.

Most Color Changing Marine Animals

Some of the most dramatic and dynamic examples of color changing marine animals include:

Animal Color Change Capabilities
Octopus Rapidly changes skin color, texture, and shape to camouflage with surroundings
Chameleon wrasse Alternates between a bluish camouflaged state and vivid green-yellow mating display colors
Mantis shrimp Uses bright red and vivid patterns to signal dominance and intimidate rivals
Panther chameleon Employs chromatic communication, changing colors to attract mates, defend territory and express mood
Parrot Fish Transitions between subdued nocturnal camouflage and bright daytime colors

The chameleonic abilities of these animals allow them to survive and thrive in the challenging marine ecosystem.


The phenotypic plasticity of color change gives marine organisms immense adaptive advantages. Rapid color and pattern modifications aid survival through camouflage, communication, heat regulation, and predator intimidation. Specialized cells like chromatophores enable animals like octopuses and chameleons to shimmer and flash for defense, territoriality, and attracting mates. The capacity to shift hues provides marine life with a vibrant solution for thriving in the complex and dynamic ocean environment.