Pencil squid have long proven useful to humans, mostly in the form of fried calamari on dinner plates, but a novel use for the creature has been discovered by researchers at University of California, Irvine, who have developed a camouflage coating from a protein in the everyday squid.

In the journal Advanced Materials, the researchers at UC Irvine's Henry Samueli School of Engineering describe their "biomimetic infrared camouflage" coating inspired by the pencil squid (Loliginidae).

Unlike conventional camouflage, which can keep things hidden from sight, the researchers want the new material to be undetectable by infrared sensors, which notoriously foil traditional camouflage attempts.

"We're trying to develop something that you could essentially use as reconfigurable infrared reflective paint so that you'd be able to disguise yourself," research leader Alon Gorodetsky said, according to a report from Chemistry World. "There's really not much out there in terms of inexpensive, biodegradable non-toxic materials that can be changed on the fly."

The pencil squid is an apt candidate to use as bio-inspiration because of their specialized skin cells that can reflect both visible and infrared light. The camouflage coating Gorodetsky and his team developed lies within the near-infrared end of the spectrum, about 700 to 1,200 nanometers, which matches the image range standard in infrared sensors used by most military forces.

To create the camouflage, the researchers produced reflectin -- an essential protein which gives squid the ability to change color and reflect light -- in a common bacteria, which they went on to transform into a thin film that mimics the skin of a squid.

The squid-derived camouflage has potential applications in infrared stealth camouflage, energy-efficient reflective coatings and biologically-inspired optics, Gorodetsky said. 

"Our approach is simple and compatible with a wide array of surfaces, potentially allowing many simple objects to acquire camouflage capabilities," Gorodetsky said in a statement from UC Irvine, adding that the research was just the first step in developing a material which will self-reconfigure in response to an extremal signal.

"Our long-term goal is to create fabrics that can dynamically alter their texture and color to adapt to their environments," Gorodetsky said. "Basically, we're seeking to make shape-shifting clothing -- the stuff of science fiction -- a reality."