DIVE TIME with Tim Grollimund

When squids fly

February 28, 2014 

A Caribbean reef squid engulfs its prey.


One of the animals I always see people go bonkers over are squid. Whether there are a few, or a whole squadron, everyone is always drawn to a squid sighting. And why not? 

I don’t see them often enough, and it is a great addition to any dive, especially if they let you get close. The closest I have been able to get is on night dives, since they seem to like the lights.

Back in the day, my first significant encounter with squid was in St. Lucia. I was at Anse Chastanet, near the Pitons. If you ever get a chance, go there. It is a beautiful place, and the shore diving is fantastic.  

I had the honeymoon suite, since it was supposed to be my honeymoon. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you planned, as Roy Hobbs would say. She kept the ring and I kept the trip. Life is good.

Right off shore there was a resident school of squid, maybe as many as a few dozen.  They were less shy than the ones I have encountered here, obviously conditioned to spectators in the protected area around the resort. This was fairly close to where the elephant lived.  

Yes, a swimming elephant. That was interesting.

Of course, calamari is a favorite appetizer, although I find it a bit on the chewy side. If it looks like an onion ring, it should chew like an onion ring. Squid are actually big business in California. Squid landings are the number one value in the fishery, popping in at about $65 million annually. That’s a lot of calamari and bait.

And why is it that people are attracted to these squiggly little critters? For me it’s the color changes. Watching a squid change color is quite entertaining, along with the splaying of the arms in different postures as the colors change.

Camouflage is a main use of the color schemes, but squid also use color for mating. Attracting females and fending off other males are the motives. Squid have so much precise control over the chromatic function they can be displaying the attraction mode on one side to a female, and shouting at their male counterparts to back off on the other side. Maybe that’s the origin of being two-faced, or talking out of both sides of your mouth, in technicolor.

Individuals can be identified by the pattern of dots on their skin, much the same way as whale sharks, seals, zebras and eagle rays. Males are different than females, having fewer, larger dots on their fins. When observing a school over time, the adult individuals tended to take the same position within the group. 

Larger adults stayed on the edge, with progressively smaller squid towards the middle.

When males were displaying the antagonistic pattern towards each other, the dots are even more pronounced, leading scientists to believe they were identifying themselves to their rivals. See a good color change video on the Popular Science web page here: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/squid-inspired-coating-camouflage-night-vision/

In any event, the military has not let the camo effect pass unnoticed. At the University of California, Irvine, scientists are conducting research on the anatomical features that allow instantaneous color changes in squid. They are using a protein called reflectin and graphene, a wafer-thin carbon material, to produce a film that can hide from night vision and infrared cameras. They hope to provide better camo for soldiers. Sounds like the Klingon cloaking device to me. Wonder how many Trekkies are in the research group?

Graphene has been around a while, and has recently been the focus of a $1.35 billion research effort in Europe to tap the full potential of this exceptional material. Scientists equate the integration of graphene into mainstream products to the introduction of plastics (recall “The Graduate”) or silicon. It’s that significant.

I also found a paper that diagrams the color patterns used in communication and camouflage in Caribbean reef squid, so now you can tell what’s going on when you have your next squid encounter. Once you see it all laid out on the diagrams, it will be fun to try to spot the Plaid, Zebra or Stripe color schemes as they display. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it, as these are all “acute” (short duration) color patterns. When you are done, you will know “squiddish.” Your quiz will be in the water.  Check it out here: http://timgimages.com/PDF/ByrneBerlinSquid.pdf

Next time I get buzzed by a flight of squid, I might have a hint at what the are saying. Maybe if they know I know, they will hang around and play. One can only hope.

Why bother keeping all that gorgeous color muted underwater? Let it fly, say the squid. I often see flying fish, but from now on I will be taking a closer look. Squid can fly — and quite well — according to several sources I found.

In a Scientific American article entitled “Fact or Fiction: Can a Squid Fly out of Water?” (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-squid-fly/), marine biologist Silvia Macia observed flying squid and was fascinated by the event. She began studying and documenting accounts by other researchers and published the results in a paper in 2004. See http://timgimages.com/PDF/SquidFlight.pdf for the list she compiled.  

According to Dr. Macia, reef squid can fly up to 50 times its body length. As always, entertainment on the reef is everywhere.  

Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at tim@timgimages.com. Tim is a member of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.  Opinions expressed by Tim are not the official views of the FKNMS.


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