Take a good long look at these Australian mourning cuttlefish. They’re courting – you can tell because one of them (the male) is sporting a set of flashy black and white stripes on his skin. At least, he’s striped on the side the female’s looking at. The pattern on his other side is quite different. In fact, on that side he looks like a she. That’s because there’s another male lurking out of the frame in that direction. To that distant male, this scene doesn’t look like a tryst – it looks like a pair of girls hanging out.
This trick, according to a recent paper in Biology Letters, may let our courting male get intimate with a mate without attracting unwanted (and violent) attention from the other male. But what I found most interesting about the paper was the observation that males only try this sort of deception in very specific circumstances – when a male finds himself in a group containing only one other male and one other female. He won’t send mixed messages if two females are nearby, or if he’s part of a larger group. Which suggests three things about the minds of these cuttlefish:
1. They can count, at least up to four.
2. They can imagine what the world looks like to another cuttlefish. (Not to go all theory of mind-y, but that's pretty impressive for an invertebrate.)
3. They can figure out when they’re most likely to get away with a lie.
And when it’s a lie that gets a male some undisturbed “us time” with a receptive female, it's a lie that's worth the risk of telling.
Reference: Brown, C., M. P. Garwood and J. E. Williamson 2012. It pays to cheat: tactical deception in a cephalopod social signalling system. Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0435