by Noah Jaffe
I am an awkward person. To some extent, it’s something that comes with the territory of being a human in society. Awkwardness, when done in a cute or funny way, has become something of a desirable trait (see Zooey Deschanel, Zach Galifianakis). I however, believe that I have honed my awkwardness through a strict regimen of Bar Mitzvahs, family vacations and college parties. For me, introductions are often the most awkward part of the affair. The question that always gets me is, “So what are you interested in?”
I never know if the person posing this question actually cares or is just trying to include me in a conversation that is mostly about them and their life. Regardless, I try to keep them honest and answer truthfully.
“Squid. I’m very interested in squid.”
This inevitably prompts a confused look and a follow-up question regarding whether my love of squid is purely gastronomical. I answer that it is not, and that I enjoy studying them. Here is why I find squid and their kin fascinating.
For me, the ocean has always been a source of wonder and amazement. I can recall long hours of standing wide-eyed, in front of the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or walking through tide pools at the beach and coming across a gem such as a crab molt or a polychaete worm. I love the ocean and nothing intrigues me more than its dark, unseen depths: an abyss of blackness and cold. Also, leviathans: giant, writhing monsters lurking far away from the sun’s warming touch. I consider myself to have an active imagination, and I love contemplating these creatures and their mystery.
My other reasons for loving these animals are perhaps less grounded in childish fantasy. I am a biology major; life intrigues me. Adaptation and evolution make for some amazing physiologies, and in no group of organisms is this truer than cephalopods. A class within the phylum mollusca, cephalopoda includes, in evolutionary order, nautilus, cuttlefish, squid, and octopus. I am interested in all of these creatures, but particularly the more advanced squid and octopus, because they possess an incredible array of tools.
For example, squid and octopus are among the smartest animals in the kingdom. Squid have huge, powerful eyes, some of which are backlit by bioluminescent bacteria, functioning as deep-sea headlights. They each have eight flexible arms, which can grasp with the delicacy of an infant, smell prey, and, in octopuses, allow the animal to glide gracefully along the sea floor.
However, that’s just the beginning. Squid are among the fastest, most powerful swimmers in the ocean. Their beaks are composed of one of the hardest organic substances known, so hard, in fact, that the squid secretes a layer of mucus around its beak to prevent the hard beak from tearing apart its soft body.
Then, of course, there is color change. Squid are masters of camouflage, using chromatophores in their skin to change hues in the blink of an eye. That’s nothing compared to the complete shapeshifting abilities of the octopus. These animals can disappear, mimic their surroundings, and fit into virtually any hole or crevice with ease. It is this amazing power that appeals to me: nature’s answer to Marvel superhero comics and fantasy tales of wizards and magic.
The other aspect of all this craziness that truly amazes me is the fact that such an evolutionarily derived creature can exist in such an alien form. While humans are widely regarded as the pinnacle of the evolutionary ladder, with our big brains and whatnot, I would contend that Mother Nature should be equally proud of cephalopods’ incredible array of tools, abilities and weaponry: so amazing, yet so different from us.
I’ve told this tale before, but I hope this article is more articulate and concise than my bumbling explanations to people I just met. I love cephalopods, and hopefully now you like them a little more too.