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A Real-Life Cloaking Device

How a crustacean's non-reflective coating could unlock the prospects of invisibility.

Whether your preference is Klingon cloaking devices or Sue Storm from the Fantastic Four, most references to invisibility are housed within the works of other-worldly science fiction. However, scientists have recently begun closer studies on the subject thanks a lifeform found pretty close to home.

Laura Bagge is a marine biologist who studies hyperiid amphipods. These crustaceans, which supposedly inspired the look of the creature in the movie Aliens, top out at about 7” long and are most closely related to sand fleas.

Their size and home on the upper layers of the open ocean make hyperiid amphipods easy prey for larger predators. However, their defenses not only entail transparent bodies that reduce their visibility, but an anti-reflective coating that essentially makes them invisible.

When sunlight or moonlight hits their transparent bodies, it still creates a reflection, making them visible to predators. However, one species, the Cystisoma, feature legs covered by extremely small structures that Bagge refers to as nanoprotuberances.

Comparable to shag carpet, Bagge, whose research recently appeared in Current Biology, states that these structures dampen the light’s reflections. So the light hits the pointed end of these nanoprotuberances and works it’s way down until reaching the body surface.

This gradual buffering reduces the reflection and distorts how light passes through their transparent structures. So there’s not even a silhouette or shadow to attract prying eyes from the depths below.

However, before specing Cystisoma nanoprotuberances into your next military or aerospace design, you might have to account for the fact that this coating could be … alive. Upon further investigating this cloak of invisibility under a microscope, it closely resembles bacteria that is capable of reproducing.

Bagge suspects that the organisms have a symbiotic relationship, whereas the crustaceans get an antireflective coating and the bacteria get a free home.

Bagge plans to continue her research, if she can actually find more Cystisomas to study.

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