POSTED 20 DEC 2001
| Is the
huge squid now appearing in a Science magazine near you prey for fish? It
could be -- after all, there's no reason to think that the web of life in
the deep sea is any different than in familiar environments, despite the
crushing pressure and absolute darkness.
Problem is, nobody has the faintest idea what the squid eat -- or what eats them. Their abundance is murky, their scientific name undecided. Even their body consistency is subject to conjecture, since nobody has touched them.
But the new squid are big -- up to 23 feet long. And they live deep, from 1,000 meters (the lower limit of white-whale territory) to 4,765 meters below the ocean surface.
We can distill the facts about the new squid into one more paragraph. Eight have been photographed from deep-sea submersibles, in four oceans, since 1988. They look alike, but could represent several species.
End of data.
One thing's for sure: nobody has searched for the squid with the obsession that Captain Ahab focused on Moby-Dick. "None were found by people looking for squids, all the projects were focused on something else," says Michael Vecchione, director of the National Systematics Laboratory of the National Marine Fishery Service, and first author of the report on the new squid. "They just happened on these weird squids," and knew enough to take photos and videos.
Got your pen, Herman?
For example, their shape indicates that the slinky calamaris earn their paychecks by trapping and eating other animals. "If I had to speculate about what they do for a living," says Vecchione, "I'd guess the long arms are sticky." In one case, he says, an arm stuck to the hull of a submarine that was making videos of it. "They hang there in water, waiting for crustaceans to stick, almost like a living spider web."
The newcomers should not be confused with true giant squids of the genus Architeuthis, which can grow to 60 feet long. These critters, prey to the Moby-Dick, the White Whale, and less mythical leviathans like the sperm whale, have been found in fishing nets and washed up on beaches.
Problem is, even Ahab might not want to harpoon -- or even net -- the slender new squid, because many deep-sea creatures have fragile bodies. Trapping with a deep-sea submersible would be far preferable -- if hard to arrange and considerably more costly.
The new squid, like their better-known counterparts, apparently lack bones, so their muscles work by pressing on each other. As Vecchione describes it, "If you squeeze a balloon filled with water, it will force the balloon away from the squeezing. If you squeeze muscles with another set of muscles, they will squirt out like toothpaste from a tube."
To experience this so-called "muscular hydrostat" at first hand, wag your tongue. That's how tongues work.
Still the squid's extremely slender arms probably pack less punch than an elephant's trunk, another user of the muscular hydrostat.
Although only eight of the new squid have been photographed, Vecchione suspects they are fairly common. Even so, he says, "You'd have to search a lot of water to find one. Hunting specifically for these would not be very productive, but there's a lot of weird stuff in the deep sea that we don't know anything about. You might find these, or some equally bizarre creatures."
-- David (Cap'n Melville) Tenenbaum
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