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Animals around the world, from squids to chameleons to octopus, have developed unique adaptations that allow them to change colors based on light sensitivity in their skin. A widespread phenomenon, scientists still do not necessarily fully understand it. While known reasons for color change include camouflage, communication and temperature regulation, there is still a lot to learn about how exactly the color changing mechanism takes place throughout different species.

On April 25th, as part of the Ocean Life lecture series, Lorian Schweikert, a postdoctoral researcher in the Crustacean Genomics and Systemics Lab, (CRUSTOMICS), discussed her research exploring the light sensing abilities of fish.

Many divers in the Florida Keys have witnessed the rapid color changing that occurs in hogfish. However few understood that for this color change to take place, the hogfish need to be able to sense light through their skin. Dr. Schweikert explained that hogfish have proteins in their skin that help them sense light, similar to the ones we have in our eyes that help us see color. These findings are exciting because they help shed light on the process behind the hogfish’s ability to make such drastic and rapid color changes.

During her talk, Dr. Schweikert also dove into some of her dissertation research which examined the visual capabilities of tarpon. Tarpon have some of the best color vision. According to Dr. Schweikert’s research, which used electroretinography to record data revealing which wavelengths tarpon see, the color that the tarpon can see best is likely purple.

“Light-sensing systems in skin have been found all across the animal kingdom, and for the most part, we don’t understand how these systems work and what they aim to do. Studying the skin light sense in hogfish may reveal why this ability is important to so many animals and can perhaps provide insight into our own skin sensory systems too,” says Schweikert.

Hogfish and tarpon are both important species, ecologically and economically, representing two of the most sought-after fisheries along the Florida coast. Gauging the impact of environmental light changes on these species will help scientists determine the effects of events like large algal blooms and better inform conservation efforts. Understanding and comparing these extreme sensory abilities can also inspire scientists as they develop future technology.

As Dr. Schweikert progresses in her hogfish study, she wants to know whether the color change in hogfish is fixed (i.e., solid color or striped only) and whether the pattern of this color change is identical on both sides of the fish’s body. Those who have any videos of hogfish changing colors are encouraged to send them to Dr. Schweikert.

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The Ocean Life lecture series part of a partnership with Friends of the Key Largo Cultural Center, the Center for Coastal Oceans Research (CCOR) hosts an Ocean Life Series at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo. The next lecture, titled “Jewels on the Reef: The Hawksbill Turtles of Florida,” will feature Dr. Lawrence Wood from the National Save a Sea Turtle Foundation. The lecture takes place at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo in May 23rd.