Devil of the Deep: The Humboldt Squid

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With long tentacles possessing suction cups lined with sharp hooks, a powerful beak with which to lacerate and slice up its prey, and the ability to become nearly invisible in the frigid depths where it lives, the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) is a fearsome predator in every sense of the word. The species is also mysterious, as much of our knowledge on them is based on speculation. The species is highly aggressive and is known cannibalize on other Humboldt squid. Even attacks on divers have occurred on more than one occasion. This notorious reputation has earned them the nickname of “diablos rojos” or “red devils.” Worst of all, their numbers are growing rapidly and their range has now stretched into the northern Pacific coast. Are these creatures truly violent eating machines, or is there more that needs to be understood about their behavior? Why have their numbers increased so much, and will they become a threat to fisheries in the Pacific coasts as our world and theirs collide? Regardless of the answers, the Humboldt squid is a fascinating species that is well worth studying. A dive into their occult world is necessary for a better understanding of this powerful, alien-like predator.

Though Humboldt squid begin their lives as small creatures, they quickly grow to lengths of about six feet.

These squid can grow to be lengths of nearly 6 feet and weigh in as much as 100 lbs. They are cephalopods, a class of animals which includes squids, octopi, and cuttlefish. They possess the usual characteristics of squids such as a tube-like body, large eyes, 10 long appendages (two of which are much longer and used to snatch prey from a distance), a powerful beak, and the ability to change their skin color (they are known for their red hue when hooked) and squirt ink in self defense.The suction cups possess hooks which aid them as they hold on to their prey and the beak is used in order to tear apart their food.

The bodies of these squid are capable of withstanding the incredible water pressure of their environment.

Humboldt squid, as mentioned previously, occur in several places along the eastern Pacific. Their range stretches from Tierra del Fuego upwards to Alaska (originally, their range rarely extended beyond California). They are a deep sea species capable of surviving in depths of about 700 meters (around 2,300 feet).[1] As soft as their bodies are, they are capable of withstanding the incredible pressure of their environment. They will, however, rise to depths of 200 meters in order to hunt prey.

It is at these depths that the squid are usually observed. Humboldt squid live in groups called shoals which can include more than a thousand members. This is usually not a good thing for researching divers, as these squid can take part in feeding frenzies much like sharks. In fact, they will attack and eat their fellow shoal members in these times of crazed feeding. It is currently unknown whether the species hunts cooperatively or simply attack individually in large numbers.[2]Their usual prey include lanternfish, mackerels, sardines, mollusks, and other cephalopods.[3]When hunting, they approach their prey with their tentacles extended forward in a cone-like shape, their large eyes enabling them to see in the dark.When the squid swims close enough to attack, it opens its eight visible tentacles and two longer tentacles covered in sharp barbs are launched at the prey. Once seized, the animal is pulled in and gripped tightly by the other appendages. The hooks lining the suction cups make certain that the prey does not escape. The squid then uses its sharp beak to tear away at the flesh of its prey. It uses its radula, a tongue-like structure located in its mouth, to further tear apart flesh before it is swallowed. It is not hard to see why these creatures are considered frightening. They are not at the top of the food chain, though. In fact, they are preyed on by a variety of animals, including porpoises, sharks, swordfish, seals, and sperm whales.

Porpoises are common predators of Humboldt squid.

The squid are rather unusual creatures in that, despite their seemingly calm nature, they will react aggressively to unknown objects. This unusual form of curiosity is the main reason for their reputation and nickname. Deep sea cameras have been attacked by this species to the point of dysfunction. Even divers have suffered from their aggression. These events can escalate to an even more dangerous level if nearby squid become excited by the attack. Their size and strength make them more than capable of severely injuring and even killing a human being. However, there are scientists which claim that the species is not as aggressive as some make them out to be. Some scientists claim that the squid react violently to reflective diving gear or similar material, while others say that they usually only become aggressive when feeding. Perhaps more studies are needed in order to fully understand these creatures. In fact, there is much left to be discovered about the species, including their reproductive habits. This is partly due to the great difficulty of studying them in nature because of the depths in which they live.

Probably one of the most important matters concerning this species is their extending range. This is due to the fear that the Humboldt squid could become a threat to the fishing industry. Overfishing has led to the decrease of the populations of species which feed on the squid, like sharks. As a result, the Humboldt squid have been able to spread to other areas. This response is not necessarily unusual. Gary Thomas, who is a fishery ecologist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, says, “Whenever fish populations are overutilized—and we see this off Japan, off California, and in the Gulf of Alaska—the shorter-lived marine species, like squid, come in and take over.”[4] In other words, the squid are only taking advantage of their opportunity now that their natural predators have been reduced in number. This has allowed them to populate other areas successfully. Perhaps a little too successfully. Many claim that the squid are negatively impacting the fishing industry by reducing the number of local fish species in their new range. Although the squid are incapable of causing extreme damage to the fishing industry, there is still worry among fishery biologists and fishermen.[5]The squid themselves are heavily fished. In fact, offshore Humboldt squid catches in Mexico rose from 14 tons per year in 1974 to over 19 tons in 1980.[6] However, the species reproduces very quickly, allowing them to recuperate quickly from fishing pressure. Not all scientists consider the squid’s new range a problem, though. Biologist William Gilly, of California’s Stanford University, claims “Squid are like nomadic tribes. If the productivity were to change they would move on. Right now they are staying. And only an incredibly productive area could support such a level of top predator. We have to try and understand it the best we can.”[7]

The Humboldt squid, despite the mixed opinions it has attained, is a fascinating creature. It has been endowed with the tools necessary to make it a superb predator and an excellent survivor. In the end, like all other creatures, these intriguing animals are only carrying out what they were designed to do. They are merely attempting to survive as best as they can. Sometimes we forget this, especially when conflicts between mankind and animals arise. Whether you are a fan of them or not, one cannot say that they are not extraordinary creatures. They have done well up until now, and it appears that they are here to stay.

[1] “Dosidicus gigas, Jumbo Squid.” Available from Internet; accessed 25 March 2011.

[2] Roger T Hanlon, John B Messinger, Cephalopod Behavior, p. 56, Cambridge University Press, 1996

[3] Dosidicus gigas, Jumbo Squid.” Available from Internet; accessed 25 March 2011.

[4] The Curious Case of the Cannibal Squid, Michael Tennesen, National Wildlife Magazine, Dec/Jan 2005, vol. 43 no. 1.

[5] Johnson, Melica. “Giant squid invades coastal waters, threatens fishing.” (2010): 12 Apr 2010.

[6] “Dosidicus gigas, Jumbo Squid.” Available from Internet; accessed 26 March 2011.

[7] The Curious Case of the Cannibal Squid, Michael Tennesen, National Wildlife Magazine, Dec/Jan 2005, vol. 43 no. 1.

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On March 26, 2011
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