Call me Fishmael: Cap'n Ahab Tenenbaum points toward the viewer, squid dragging whale tail under water behind him on the ocean surface
POSTED 20 DEC 2001
The flashlight squid.

Sex among snails


Click on the squid to see it in action!
Image and movie courtesy Michael Vecchione, National Systematics Laboratory, National Marine Fishery Service.

  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.

ethereal, fragile looking, light, colorless squid floats through the waterWe are speaking, of course, of the whale-eat-krill, whaler-eat-whale side of existence.

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.

boat hitchWe 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.

compassCalling all calamari
Vecchione is the first to admit that ignorance surrounds the new critters. "We know almost nothing about them," he says. "These are the first observations." But there are hints that might become the basis for a novel about a great white squid.

Got your pen, Herman?

In the deep ocean, what we know is eclipsed by what we don't. 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.

various views of the giant squid: body has long, slender, 
trailing arms, all held parallek-A, Body with arms held tightly together and trailing behind the body-C, 
Body spread like butterfly to make fins, with arms in confusing orientation beneath it-E

Various views of the new squid. A Note the characteristic splayed arms, followed by a sharp bend, in a squid from the eastern Atlantic Ocean. C A 7-meter squid from the Gulf of Mexico at 2,195 meters. Arms are withdrawn to allow quick movement. E A 4- to 5-meter squid from the Pacific, showing the fin it uses for propulsion. Unlike squids that live near the surface, these critters don't seem to move about by squirting water.
Michael Vecchione, National Systematics Laboratory, National Marine Fishery Service.

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.

anchor Unknown monster
We've stressed what we don't know because the new squid embodies our vast ignorance of the deeper parts of the ocean. In advocating more research on deep-sea creatures, Vecchione reminds us that this region comprises 90 percent of the biosphere (except for what's underground), and yet almost nothing is known about it.

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) Tenenbaumportrait of the author as Ahab, in porthole


Worldwide Observations of Remarkable Deep-Sea Squids, Michael Vecchione et al, Science, 21 December, 2001, pp. 250-1.

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