In X-Men: Days of Future Past, you will see amazing evolutions never before seen in nature… except for the blue beauty Mystique, who was beaten to her mutations by an octopus.
First discovered in 1998 by Indonesian fisherman, the mimic octopus is literally the Mystique of the open ocean. Like other octopuses, the mimic can alter its skin color and even skin texture, but unlike its kin, it changes its behavior to disguise itself as other species.
No one knows exactly how many impressions the mimic octopus has in its back pocket, but individuals have been documented masquerading as flounders, lionfish, and even sea snakes. The species is incredibly versatile.
How the mimic octopus accomplishes such an act also gives us a scientific way to understand Mystique’s unique skin mutations.
Octopuses are so good at camouflage because they have skin devoted to deception. Recent research has discovered three types of muscles controlling the shape of octopus skin, with one pulling the skin vertically, one flattening out the base of protrusions, and the last pulling protrusions together. These muscles give the mimic octopus a functional 3D-camoflage just like Mystique.
The skin adaptations don’t stop there. To get Mystique-level color copying, the mimic octopus’ skin (in fact, most octopus’ skin) has three kinds of cells that provide shimmer, shine, and color. Pigment-filled cells called chromatophores control color changes, while other cells called iridophores and leucophores change the shine and iridescence of the skin by controlling reflected light at an atomic level.
Chromatophores in squid responding to electrical stimulation.
Other mutant powers are more fanciful—Nightcrawler is some kind of particle accelerator mixed with a stargate—but just a few specialized skin cells would bring Mystique much closer to reality. Imagine if a genetic mutation allowed your goose bumps to raise, flatten, and squeeze together. Now imagine a similar mutation letting your skin rapidly change color and reflectivity. Combine these mutations with an uncanny ability to mimic the behavior of others and you would effectively be Mystique.
Nature’s own blue Jennifer Lawrence may not have the range of the actress in Days of Future Past, but let’s see Mystique pull off a convincing flounder.
Kyle Hill is the Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow him on Twitter @Sci_Phile.