Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

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The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid
Wendy Williams, 223 p., Abrams Image, 2011, $21.95.
Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams

Read this delectable book, and you are going to love squid. Not calamari on a plate, but in the ocean or the lab. The giant squid, the largest of these ten-tentacled marine creatures, has gradually emerged from deep obscurity after long being mocked as a fisherman’s fable. The giant can change color in a fraction of a second and has evolved monstrous eyes suited to the deep, dark ocean. Its tentacles — up to 13 meters long — are covered with grasping structures with a degree of dexterity that belies the label “sucker.”

And yes, the giant may indeed fight with the leviathan — the whale.

The story of giant squid illuminates scientific ignorance and arrogance. In the mid-19th century, fishers, whalers and sea captains who had seen improbably huge sea creatures were convinced that monsters with long tentacles lived in the ocean. But Richard Owen, who coined “dinosaur” and should have known better, belittled the sightings of the unwashed, and controversy raged.

Novelists like Jules Verne and Herman Melville, who had been whaling himself, were not hobbled by the scientific skepticism. In Moby-Dick, his 1851 classic, Melville wrote of “A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth … curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.”

A furlong is 220 yards, or about 200 meters…

Only after a fisherman retrieved a 6-meter hunk of tentacle in 1873 was the giant squid’s existence proven, though it is not even a furlong long.

The mysterious giant squid may be the sizzle, but the steak in Williams’s tasty new read comes from a miniature relative, Loligo pealei, which has become a work-horse (is that the best metaphor?) for neuroscience.

The neuro connections comes from this squid’s oversize nerve cells. When the first complex, multicellular animals emerged, the requirement for internal communication sparked the evolution of a system based on electrically conducting cells — neurons. Not surprisingly, since nature loves a winner, squid neurons are very similar to ours, even though our common ancestor lived an astonishing 700 million years ago.

The squid’s giant axons — a neuron’s output channels — are relatively easy to study, and Williams describes how, about 30 years ago, researchers first observed mitochondria and other organelles flowing through the gooey interior of the axon. Finally, here was a technology that could peer inside living life, and the axon’s interior proved far more active and organized than expected. The squid axon lead to the discovery of kinesins, varied propulsive molecules that truck freight inside our cells.

But how, exactly, had the microscope seen what had never been seen before? In revealing only that the manufacturer had “mis-tuned” the instrument, Williams seems to be heeding the edict to “keep it simple” We are left to wonder how a boo-boo brewed a breakthrough.

Quibbles aside, this is a nourishing read, yet at 223 pages, a non-fattening one. When you finish, calamari may still be rubbery to the tongue, but you’ll have new respect for 10-legged camouflage experts that make a living in the deep sea. You will also feel an urgent need to know more about the colossal squid, which is even bigger – and more reclusive – than the giant…

– David J Tenenbaum