Episode 1 – The Not-So-Humble Humboldt Squid

The ocean can be a terrifying place, and that’s mostly thanks to animals like the Humboldt Squid. But their ferocity is hardly the most interesting thing about these cephalopods. Join us for our pilot episode as we explore the depths of the sea to come face to face with the Kraken itself!

When you think of the most ferocious predators in the ocean, very few people think of the squishy squid as being in the top of the list. Join us as we take a look at one of the most aggressive polychromatic denizens of the deep as it stealthily eats up everything it can get its slimy tentacles on in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Featuring the vocal talents and expert barks of Yoshi the Hound Dog.

Episode Transcription

Joe: Welcome to life death and taxonomy your thirty minutes of interesting animal info. I’m Joe

Carlos: and I’m Carlos

Joe: And today, we’re talking about an animal that sounds very British

Carlos: Well, first, let’s point out that this is the pilot podcast episode.

Joe: Yeah, inaugural episode.

Carlos: We noticed that there really aren’t that many animal-centric podcasts that aren’t just about pets or global warming. So this is going to be more like a nature documentary. You’re going to learn about the most interesting parts of the animal kingdom.

Joe: Ok, would you like to kick us off with..

Carlos: Well, what is our first animal?

Joe: It’s the Humboldt Squid. That’s why I said it sounded British. But it’s not, it’s Mexican.

Carlos: I mean, sure. I saw that it ranges all the way from the southern tip of South America—the strait of Magellan—all the way up to Alaska.

Joe: Yeah and its territory is expanding.

Carlos: Yeah because there’s a lot of them. So that pretty much takes care of the location. They live at 660-2300 feet below the surface of the water. This is a super interesting animal.

Joe: So it’s very dark down there.

Carlos: We’ll just go ahead and say the nomenclature and then I’ll just kind of list off its taxonomy. Because this is Life Death and Taxonomy so we do need to say its classification. So it’s called–I really like its binomial nomenclature.

Joe: What is binomial nomenclature?

Carlos: That’s the latin genus and the species, the latin words for those.

Joe: So whenever you hear a nerd scientist in a movie talk about an animal, that’s probably what you hear. The binomial nomenclature. He’s like “Oh, no, don’t touch the vapirus baticus.”

Carlos: We should know that.

Joe: Alright, but what’s this guy’s name?

Carlos: This one’s called, because he’s actually a sith lord, his name is dosidicus gigas.

Joe: That does sound sith lordy.

Carlos: Like Darth Dosidicus?

Joe: Sure.

Carlos: That’s its binomial nomenclature. It’s also known as the jumbo squid.

Joe: Because it is small?

Carlos: Nope, because it’s jumbo.

Joe: Because it’s big, gigas right? That means big.

Carlos: Yeah sure. Gigas is its species name. Anyway, it’s kingdom animalia like most of the things we’ll be talking about here. Phylum mollusca.

Joe: Ah, so the same as snails.

Carlos: Yeah pretty much they’re the same exact thing. A cephalopod and a snail.

Joe: Because they got no spines–spineless folk.

Carlos: So the class is cephalopoda. The order is teotheta. The family is a really long word that I’ve been practicing, let’s see if I can get it: ommastrephidae.

Joe: That was pretty good.

Carlos: And the genus is dosidicus and the species is gigas.

Joe: So basically, the binomial nomenclature is most specific to the bottom two. It’s the genus and the species. So it’s like down to the nitty gritty.

*dog bark

Carlos: By the way if you hear a dog bark, it’s because this is an animal podcast. So what interesting things can you tell us about the animal’s physical appearance?

Joe: It’s larger than you might think.

Carlos: Really?

Joe: Yeah, it’s as long as a car. The mantle is six feet, and the mantle is the part of the squid that doesn’t have tentacles.

Carlos: Right. It’s the solid shell part. Well, it’s not really a shell.

Joe: There’s a hard shell on the inside.

Carlos: Is it made of bone or is it cartilage?

Joe: I’m not sure. I learned that by dissecting a squid.

Carlos: It’s like clear, hard substance.

Joe: It has to be clear because they’re clear. You can see through the skin in its basic state.

Carlos: Yeah but I couldn’t hold a squid up between you and me and see you.

Joe: Translucent.

Carlos: Sure. But it’s not clear. It’s not a window,

Joe: They look pretty gnarly because they’ve got their tentacles. The mantle is about 40% of its body so tentacles make up the rest.

Carlos: Yeah if it has a 5 foot mantle… well it’s not 40% of its length, it’s 40% of its mass, right?

Joe: Yeah. So it’s heavier.

Carlos: So it has organs and stuff.

Joe: Yeah. All the good stuff. So the tentacles have your typical suction cups as you might expect. But closer to the body they have these barbs–these teeth. And then around every suction cup, they have teeth.

Carlos: Like razor-sharp teeth.

Joe: So you don’t even want to get touched by this boy.

Carlos: So does it use suction or does it use the razor-sharp teeth?

Joe: I imagine it’s both and that sucks.

Carlos: It literally sucks. Because geckos don’t have suction cups they have those tiny hooks that allow them to grab on. So this has both those tiny hooks and—

Joe: It has suction cups like a regular squid and there are teeth on those suction cups.

Carlos: Do not all squid have the teeth?

Joe: Maybe they’re very tiny but I touched squid tentacles, you can eat squid.

Carlos: Yeah and I guess you don’t have to eat the teeth. So I guess that having a Humboldt Squid wrap its tentacle around your arm—

Joe: Is not going to be a good time.

Carlos: Yeah that’s going to cut your skin open because there are razor-sharp teeth.

Joe: Plus, because of the payload that’s in the center. So it wraps itself around your arm and then it bites on you with this beak that’s kind of like a parrot’s beak.

Carlos: We’ve all seen the Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man’s Chest.

Joe: Yeah, so it’s kind of like a parrot’s beak and it’s slightly smaller than a tennis ball on a full-grown one.

Carlos: So it’s like a mini sarlac.

Joe: Yeah. So, sure.

Carlos: From Star Wars. So it has a beak in the middle. It has a tongue, right? To taste?

Joe: I’m not sure. What would it need a tongue for?

Carlos: Kissing.

Joe: So that’s basically what it looks like, plus it’s got some color-changing features which we’ll talk about later.

Carlos: Yeah, we’ll save that for later because that’s the coup de gras. Is that the right thing to say?

Joe: I don’t know. Does that mean that it’s the interesting part about this squid?

Carlos: It means mercy strike. Like killing someone to take them out of their misery. So it’s not the coup de gras it’s the creme de la creme.

Joe: The beak is the coup de gras.

Carlos: Yeah. It’s like “Oh my gosh, all these razor-sharp suckers everywhere please would some giant keratin beak bite my head off?” So these squid, they actually live in the humboldt current which is what gives them their name. Their boring British name. Did I already point out that they’re called Diablo Rojo?

Joe: No, you did not.

Carlos: Goodness, that’s their coolest name. Diablo Rojo, which means the Red Devil in Spanish.

Joe: And it’s called by local fisherman in, what’s the name of the place they live mostly?

Carlos: Tierra del Fuego?

Joe: Anyway, they’re really popular among fisherman and that’s what they’re called.

Carlos: This thing is edible. Imagine you’re a fisherman and you catch this seven foot long, hundred pound squid. That’s your catch for the day, you can go home.

Joe: Right. Plus, they catch way more than that because they’re so numerous.

Carlos: Also a seven foot long Humboldt Squid is the upper level.

Joe: About a hundred pounds too.

Carlos: So wikipedia has a picture of a guy who’s holding one up and it looks to be fifty pounds. And it looks to be maybe four or five feet long.

Joe: If its a short gentleman. Because the tentacles are touching the ground and the mantle almost goes all the way up to his head. He’s like 5’ 7” maybe.

Carlos: And 52 pounds. So a hundred pound one, imagine how big that would be? Or dense, I guess. It just has more organs. Maybe it’s eaten something that’s heavy.

Joe: It might be longer because they said it can be up to seven feet.

Carlos: That is crazy and terrifying. Part of my fear of the open ocean is giant squid.

Joe: Plus, they don’t just travel on their own. They travel in shoals. Doctor shoals, if you will.

Carlos: Yeah they travel in doctor shoals with over a thousand of these squid. A thousand six-foot-long, hundred-pound squid that are naturally aggressive. These things attack whatever shiny thing comes into their path.

Joe: They’ll pretty much eat anything.

Carlos: Right, so if you look up humboldt squid attacks, it’s usually this big dramatized thing because there have been stories of these things ripping people apart and taking them off of their boats.

Joe: Which could be fake.

Carlos: I think that’s totally fake. I think that having a humboldt squid rip you off your boat unless it’s on your fishing pole and you’re holding onto your fishing pole Deagol-style, I don’t think they can do that.

Joe: Their tentacles don’t seem long enough to reach you out of the water.

Carlos: Humboldt squid have relatively short tentacles if you compare it to the giant squid, which has really long tentacles. We can talk about the giant squid and colossal squid all that stuff in another episode. So these things are aggressive, they only live between one and two years. So the’ve been forced to adapt really quickly. Because of that, cephalopods in general, being very adaptable, it makes it so that their population is seeing a boom because commercial fishing is just getting bigger and bigger and the fish that would normally eat these cephalopods like dolphins, sharks, and tuna.

Joe: And salmon.

Carlos: Salmon eat them?

Joe: Yeah, their babies.

Carlos: Ok. And people love salmon. Did you know a tuna can be fifteen feet long?

Joe: Yeah tuna can be huge.

Carlos: Fifteen feet long, fifteen hundred pounds, and they live for up to fifty years.

Joe: That’s a lot of cat food. But they’re saying that, because of us overfishing those species, they’re not getting eaten as infants so they’re just having a population boom.

Carlos: The squid are all over the place.

Joe: And their range is expanding and a range is where an animal lives.

Carlos: On a map the range is huge on a map and also it can live at 2,300 ft below the surface all the way up to the surface itself.

Joe: And it seems that they’re very affected by weather patterns. I saw something that said that El Nino can affect it.

Carlos: El Nino is a huge weather phenomenon that changes the currents and things like that.

Joe: So El Nino, they said, would make them adapt by getting smaller and living six months rather than a year or two years. So they get smaller and live faster. I don’t understand how that helps but they also go back out to the open ocean because there are fewer predators.

Carlos: It’s just a bigger area and it’s easier to avoid things.

Joe: And there are more predators toward reefs on the coast. So when they’re big, they’re the predators. They come in and with El Nino, they go out and become smaller. And they eat anything from krill when they’re small they’ll eat krill and tiny fish.

Carlos: Yeah crustaceans. And then to other cephalopods—they’ll eat each other. Which is one of the fears with this huge population boom. We’re either going to start eating them more or they’re going to start eating each other. I mean, not start eating each other. Their own species will be their major food source.

Joe: Well apparently they’re pretty tasty so let’s get fishing.

Carlos: I don’t think calamari is Humboldt squid.

Joe: No I saw something that said that Humboldt squid is tasty.

Carlos: But I don’t think when you get calamari that you’re getting Humboldt squid. I think you’re getting smaller squid.

Joe: You’d get a lot more.

Carlos: So we’ll talk about the ink and then after that we can talk about the really cool part, the chromatophores.

Joe: Spoiler alert.

Carlos: Well we talked about their ability to change color. So, like most cephalopods, they can shoot ink. I found out that ink is mostly made of melanin.

Joe: That’s weird. So they’re shooting basically the same thing that makes your skin the color it is and gives you a sunburn when you go out into the sun… or it gives you a tan when you go into the sun.

Carlos: Yeah it doesn’t give you a sunburn.

Joe: It is the tan.

Carlos: Right so it shoots out mostly melanin and this music that they secrete.

Joe: Fun.

Carlos: Yeah, it’s delicious. And depending on how much mucous they secrete–this is the really interesting thing— some of them create these things called pseudomorphs. So they’ll put more mucous into it so that it retains its shape, about the same shape as the squid itself so that predators will attack that thinking that it’s still inside of the cloud of ink while it’s gone and it’s probably changed its color. And it can spit out multiple pseudomorphs. When they’re small, they’ll do that and sea turtle babies will attack the pseudomorphs so that’s really smart. Like “I’m going to put a little more mucous into this ink cloud so they’re going to think I’m still there” It’s crazy smart. Which is interesting because cephalopods in general are pretty smart.

Joe: But squid are not.

Carlos: I saw information saying that the Humboldt squid was on par with the octopus.

Joe: Really?

Carlos: Yeah but an octopus is on par with a dog. And in terms of intelligence, dolphins are smarter than all of them.

Joe: There are more and more people coming out and saying tha octopuses are the most intelligent because they’re self aware in terms of how big they are so they can look at a hole and know that they’re not going to fit through it or they will. But I feel like a lot of things know that.

Carlos: Most mammals can probably do that. They can walk by a hole and think “I can’t fit in there.”

Joe: Well, I’ve seen a dog try to get in a hole that’s too small.

Carlos: Well, it tries to get something out of a hole, it doesn’t think it can get in there. We do that. Like “My wallet fell down this drainage pipe. I’m going to try to get it even though I can’t fit.”

Joe: That’s true.

Carlos: So do you want to talk about the chromatophores?

Joe: Sure. So like lots of cephalopods and chameleons and other animals in the animal kingdom.

Carlos: Mostly reptiles and amphibians and marine-dwelling fish and stuff.

Joe: Yeah. I can’t think of any mammals that do that.

Carlos: No mammals can do that.

Joe: Well they change their color sometimes to match their surroundings and sometimes to camouflage. Most color change for camouflage. But the humboldt squid can also use it for communication.

Carlos: That’s pretty crazy.

Joe: Yeah so they change color. You’ve maybe seen a chameleon do this if you live in Florida like we do.

Carlos: You see chameleons in the wild? Do you mean iguanas?

Joe:No. I mean anoles.

Carlos: A green anole?

Joe: I’ve heard people call them chameleons. That’s probably not true.

Carlos: They’re definitely not chameleons.

Joe: But they change color. So if it’s on a leaf it will be green-ish. If it’s on mulch it’ll be brown. And I’ve seen them change to something and over time they get darker. But for cephalopods, it’s instant. For these guys, they can even do a strobing effect with their skin. Dark to light, dark to light, quickly like a strobe light. And the way they do that is through chromatophores which are like tiny little pigment sacs in the skin.

Carlos: And these reflect light.

Joe: Reflect light like everything does?

Carlos: No bioluminescence doesn’t reflect light.

Joe: I see what you’re saying.

Carlos: So Humboldt squid have both chromatophores and photophores. And photophores are bioluminescent which means when they’re down there 2,300 feet below the surface, you can still see them.

Joe: They also have iridophores which change the iridescence of their skin. Which makes them shinier.

Carlos: Wow. So they can make themselves shinier, they can make themselves different colors, or they can make themselves actually glow.

Joe: And what I saw was that it’s kind of like pixels on a screen. So they’ve got tiny little chromatophore sacs that will expand. They’ve got a tiny little brown speck on them and then it expands all over their body, these tiny specks, so that they look all brown.

Carlos: So those white or clear or grey specks that were previously making up their color, those shrink. So they’re all still there, they have all the colors in their skin right? And whatever color they want to change to, they just expand those chromatophores. Which is nuts.

Joe: And they’re doing studies on how they do this and what causes them to do this. Someone did a study by snipping the part of the brain on one side of the body—

Carlos: Sounds humane.

Joe: —that controls the part that expands the chromatophores. So one side of the body was acting normally and the other side was translucent, no chromatophores were expanded. So that was telling them like “I want to move my arm, but if you snip the part of my brain that does that, I can’t move my arm.” And they’re saying that they just decide to do this. But after a while with no signals from the brain, the chromatophores start to change again. So that’s telling them that it’s kind of automatic and based on surroundings. They’ll choose to change colors, which they’ll do for communication, mating, hunting, or for camouflage which means that “I’m going to hide and change my skin to whatever the color is around me.”

Carlos: It sounds like the hiding is not purposeful. Whatever their surroundings are, they just turn that color.

Joe: It could be instinct, like a fear response. And someone described it like if you were blindfolded and walked into a blue room, not knowing that it’s blue, and your skin would turn blue. So their skin is somehow just able to match without them being aware.

Carlos: They should just blindfold the squid and throw it into a blue room and see if it turns blue. I would imagine it would turn red because that’s where the Red Devil comes from, Diablo Rojo. Because when you catch it, it’s in full I’m-going-to-kill-you mode and so it turns red.

Joe: Let’s talk about what they use it for. So I saw one that was basically right down the middle. Half of them were brown and half of them were whiteish. The side facing a female was brown, they call it “pretty”. The white side is a warning to males. So it’s kind of like a two face thing where our smiling at a lady and frowning at a man.

Carlos: It’s one of those yin and yang cookies with the chocolate and the vanilla.

Joe: A black and white cookie.

Carlos: Sure. A yin and yang cookie.

Joe: That’s what their called, it’s a black and white cookie, it’s on Seinfeld. Anyway they also can use it to communicate while hunting. The strobing thing confuses prey.

Carlos: So are they solitary hunters or do they hunt in groups?

Joe: From what I saw it’s mostly schools and frenzies.

Carlos: You know when you see fish that all turn at the exact same time somehow? Do you think they use the pigment to do that?

Joe: I didn’t see anything that suggested that. But I did see something that said when they’re swarming and they’re about to go for something, they’ll light up in a certain way to let others know I’m attacking. They think maybe it’s to say “Don’t get in my way or you’re gonna get bit.”

Carlos: Or to dazzle.

Joe: Yeah but that’s communicating to other squid like “I’m going in”. I don’t know how they know that.

Carlos: Yeah I just saw brown, white, white, brown so that means he’s going in. Although they don’t just turn white and brown. They turn red, blue, probably green or greenish blue.

Joe: And as a camouflage feature, it doesn’t seem as robust as an octopus since they can change the texture of their skin.

Carlos: That is crazy, we will talk about octopuses later.

Joe: And the color and be different colors all throughout and look just like a rock.

Carlos: It’s crazy.

Joe: But they do seem to have this instantaneous quick control over it, which is interesting. Also, this iridescence thing is helpful for open ocean stuff. So basically, you’re out in the open ocean and there are no rocks around for you to camouflage into. So you basically have to mimic the pattern of light hitting the water.

Carlos: So the ripples. So things below you look up and see, instead of a black shadow on a blue rippling background, they see a blue rippling thing.

Joe: So I did see a video of one that looked like it was underwater. You know how if you’re in the pool, you’ve got the light being reflected and refracted by the surface of the water? It looked like that was happening, it looked like it was under water and the sunlight was passing through it like that, but it wasn’t it was just its skin.

Carlos: That’s pretty nuts.

Joe: So that’s what it looks like, it’s a good way to describe it.

Carlos: So that’s the same tactic of a great white shark. It doesn’t do it on purpose, but it has a white underbelly so that when you’re looking up, it blends in with the sun. And when you’re looking down, it’s grey. Same thing with a penguin or a seal. They usually have the lighter underbellies. So that’s crazy. They reflect light, and they also will generate their own light through bioluminescence and their iridescent. So do you have anything else?

Joe: That’s the whole thing.

Carlos: That’s the Humboldt squid.

Joe: If you want to learn more, type it in on Youtube there’s loads of videos,

Carlos: They also have a camera lens kind of eye like we do. So they have really complex eyes unlike a bug.

Joe: So they can see well. And they have big eyes.

Carlos: Yeah they can take in a lot of light. But they can also focus on things where other animals can’t even though they have eyes on either side of their head. Usually animals that have that can’t focus on things. They have panoramic vision but they can’t do much focusing. But anyway we can talk about that in some other episode. We’re trying to make sure this stays 30 minutes each episode.

Joe: And we just passed the 30 minute mark.

Carlos: Alright, so until next time, there is nothing certain except Life Death and Taxonomy.