Thursday, May 1, 2008

We're going to need a bigger deep-fryer

For the last four days, squid-enamored scientists have been thawing, examining and preserving a colossal squid at Te Papa museum's research centre. Being a layperson, I wasn't allowed in, and in fact know less about this project than the people who watched it all on webcam. However, being a Wellingtonian, I was able to go to the lectures today which took advantage of having so many wonderfully interesting calamari-scented individuals in one city on the same day as the monthly science cafe.

I arrived for the third lecture, on low-light vision. This was given by two swedish vision specialists in town to look at the largest eye ever recorded. They showed how deep-sea vision works, how it can be foiled, and then moved on to land animals. The interesting thing was the research done on nocturnal colour vision; we don't have it, we never thought to look for it in anything else, and now we've found it, we suspect it might be everywhere. They also showed more unorthodox kinds of visual systems, like the box jellyfish, which has four sensory clubs which argue over who's got the best picture; sort of a democratic decision-making process.

Dr Steve O'Shea was next. He's famous for trying to capture giant squid juveniles and raise them for the discovery channel. He's also New Zealand's go-to guy for giant and colossal squid. He told us all sorts of fun things such as how difficult it is to get rid of a giant squid once every museum in transport distance has a specimen, why the gardens of Upper Hutt and Karori are so fertile, why you should never ever dump a floating sea creature back into the sea to get rid of it, especially if you're the only squid expert around, and why the rubbish collectors in Auckland hate squid research. He then moved on to other topics, and I found out that 1)giant squid taste awful, 2)just about everything eats squid and 3)trawling is BAD. For example, the common arrow squid breeds by producing a two-metre ball of jelly with eggs in it, which then floats at the same level that trawlers trawl for common arrow squid... Dr O'Shea also described his work for conservation, ensuring that future generations can also eat calamari.

Dr Tsunemi Kubodera, "Ku" to his friends, showed some of the absolutely amazing footage the Japanese researchers he's leading have been getting. The giant squid was the one everyone wanted to know about, but the videos of Taningia danae, a large deep-sea squid though not as big as the giant squid, were even more amazing. This squid doesn't have a tentacle, just eight arms, but it still catches its prey between the third and fourth arms, which is where the tentacle would be. The research on giant squid shows that tentacles tend to get torn off or damaged, so perhaps T. danae has developed a more robust system. It also has two photophores, one on the end of each second arm (R(ii) and L(ii)), which is used to frighten prey when it conducts its curving attack run, swooping past the prey from one direction with the lights showing, then switching off and turning on its prey from a different direction... very devious attack strategy. Videos of the squid interacting with a pair of simulated photophores also showed that these squid use them to communicate with others of the same species. Dr Kubodera also showed video of giant squid, showing their coloration, which indicates that they were not evolved for such depths, but are more closely related to shallow-water squid and have moved deeper as they got bigger, and are still in the process of becoming adapted to the depths. He's currently in the process of analyzing this video to calculate the squid's speed based on the power of its jets.

Finally, the main event was a science cafe where the scientists who took part in the thawing, particularly Dr O'Shea, answered questions about colossal and giant squid. They were all showing their exhaustion by now, having been working for four days on the squid, but some interesting points still came up. The specimen indicates that colossal squid are slow swimmers, with two layers of chromatophores possibly giving them chameleonic abilities, and wide variation in weight and beak size. Dr O'Shea will probably find out my name, hunt me down and slap me for this, but he mentioned the extremely tentative possibility - though without going on a limb and advocating it, of course - that colossal squid, which lack the gel-producing glands necessary to make egg masses, might brood their young live in their large, flabby mantle. Currently only females have been found, and they seem to grow wider but not longer as they get older, which would match this theory, and the low number of eggs in the ovaries would also accord with the strategy of producing fewer young, but caring for them into young-adulthood. Most squid follow the opposite strategy, so this is extremely unlikely but an interesting possibility.

Several more questions were asked, mostly general questions about large squid, but one thing that came up was that the scientists had all tasted the flesh of the squid. This was of course to determine whether or not it was ammoniacal, which would impact upon the preservation process, but all the scientists tested it...

A consensus was reached that it didn't taste so bad, but neither was it a taste sensation, and the noted conservationist Dr O'Shea ventured the opinion that the texture was similar to that of crocodile.

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