Mad About Science: Squid

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist
Sponsored by the Sandpoint Library

At first glance, some people might think about delicious calamari.

Me? I think about Cthulhu.

Giant squid are weird and fascinating, and I am utterly shocked that I haven’t done an article on these strange cephalopods before.

We know a bit about their anatomy, but their behavior remains an elusive mystery to scientists. You’d think something that can get up to 59 feet long would be hard to miss, but given the depth at which many of them live things get pretty sketchy for us when we try to go down there.

After all, the deeper you go into the water, the more water is pushing down and around on all sides of you. Our bodies don’t like that. Our bodies don’t like it at all.Squid-WEB

How deep do some dwell?

We’ve found giant squid between 3000 and 6000 feet underwater, in a place we’ve aptly dubbed the aphotic zone.

For those of us lacking a dictionary (pssst. Google it!), aphotic means dark. Like really, really dark. Totally lightless dark.

Because of this incredible darkness, giant squid have huge eyes: 10 inches across, just shy of the diameter of a frisbee. What even is there to eat down there?

Turns out, not a whole lot. That part of the ocean is home to other shadow-dwellers like Angler fish, shrimp and other squid. It’s believed that giant squid are capable of wrestling small whales that have drifted too far and chowing down on them. Creepy.

Ever wonder what you call a group of squid?

No, it’s not the Nightmare Corpse-City of R’lyeh, it’s much more innocent. Similar to fish, you call a group of squid a school. This is most often seen in smaller squid like the Caribbean Reef Squid, which only get up to about eight inches. These little guys have also been dubbed flying squid, as we discovered that they’re capable of launching themselves out of the water and soaring up to 30 feet before returning to the water.

Why they do this, we have absolutely no idea, but it’s pretty cool.

If you thought your love life was difficult, you don’t know squid. The females of most squid species die after spawning. I don’t mean “eventually,” I mean they die immediately after laying their eggs. The males, meanwhile, live short and active lives, with their entire existence being to fertilize as many females as they can before their inevitable death.

Just like the protagonist of that fan fiction you wrote in high school, young squid grow up as orphans. Just about everything they need to know in life comes pre-programmed in their gooey brains from the moment they leave the egg. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that? Imagine your toddler backing your boosted pickup out of the driveway and filing your taxes for you.

Given how mysterious squid are to scientists, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we don’t have much information on their evolutionary history. Before you throw a “Gotcha! It’s not real!” at me over the dreaded E-word, just because we haven’t found information doesn’t mean the information never took place.

Squid lack a skeleton, so there is very little to fossilize when one dies, especially in the deep ocean. While it’s not impossible for a squid to be fossilized (after all, we have fossils of ancient mollusks, from which they originated), finding and obtaining these fossils is a very difficult task.

What may have been ocean floor 75 million years ago could now be part of Utah, but what may have been Squid City, where most of their fossils would have fallen 20 million years ago, could still be underwater.

The information that we do have is based almost purely on ancient mollusk fossils from over 60 million years ago. It appears that squid branched off from mollusks sometime in that giant window and they still show some links to their ancestors.

Like your coccyx (tailbone), which is the remnant of a vestigial tail from our early ancestors, Squid have something called a gladius, which is a hard body part inside of the squid that’s shaped like a Roman sword, a gladius. Most other cephalopods lack this, except for ancient mollusks. This is believed to be the evolutionary remnant of a shell. Cool, right?

Squid produce ink when startled, it’s not just something you see on cartoons. All cephalopods with the exception of a few species of octopi are capable of producing ink. It comes from a gland between the gills, and is usually accompanied by the squid blasting water out in a jet to help disperse the ink and confuse any potential predators. The primary chemical in the ink is melanin, the same pigment that colors our skin and hair.

Some squid can produce luminescent ink, which can throw deep-dwellers off the hunt in an instant. Blinded by goo!

Squid has been a popular food item around the world for centuries. While you probably won’t get your hands on a giant squid steak any time soon, fried calamari is usually just a dinner reservation away. Most of the squid consumed in the United States is fished along the Pacific Coast, most notably from California. It’s actually the most fished item in California, with some harvests coming in over 100,000 tons.

There are restaurants in Korea that sell the squid raw and still squirming. Eating it is considered an act of bravery, because people have choked to death as the squid tries to climb back out mid-swallow.

I’ve heard it’s chewy.

Now that images of writhing masses of Lovecraftian tentacles slithering their way out of your throat will haunt your dreams, I hope you have a wonderful day!

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