Encounter with a Humboldt

This summer, news reports rang with concern that the mighty Humboldt squid was expanding its home turf off the coast of California

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This summer, news reports rang with concern that the mighty Humboldt squid was expanding its home turf off the coast of California. Known to congregate in Baja’s Sea of Cortez, at least for the last 30 years, jumbo squid, up to seven feet long and weighing as much as 100 pounds, have been found in waters as far north as central California and southeast Alaska since the 1997 and 2002 El Nino episodes. Scientists note that the apparent range expansion could have something to do with climate-linked temperature changes in ocean water, the decline of predatory tuna and billfish populations and, as squid expert William Gilly of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station hypothesizes, the Humboldt’s ability to inhabit a low-oxygen environment that excludes both their fish predators and feeding competitors.

Almost as equally debated is the squid’s temperament. Smithsonian cephalopod expert Clyde Roper from the National Museum of Natural History describes his aggressive run in with a Humboldt he lured into a cage some time ago while on a filming expedition in the Sea of Cortez:

"I was really interested in how her jaws worked, and I had this wonderful head-on view and her arms were splayed out so I could see the jaws at the base of her arms, the big lips. I think at some point she began to take exception to my examinations, and she just plain attacked without warning.

She was able to do this frontwards; this is the way they capture their prey, because they swim by jet propulsion. They take water into their body cavity, then seal the opening and contract the mantle, or body, and shoot the water out the funnel. But that funnel is very flexible so they can point it out beneath their head and it shoots them backwards or they tip it over, point it towards their tail and it shoots them forward. And that’s what she did at that point. It was just an instantaneous event. First of all, I didn’t have any place to go. I was in the chamber, and she just nailed me right on top of the thigh.

We were in for several more hours. Finally, at 3 o’clock in the morning, we’d had it and decided to go up on the boat. I had on a bathing suit, diving skins and a wetsuit. We all were ready to hit the sack so I stripped off my wetsuit, dive suit and bathing suit. All of sudden, the photographer looks over and says, 'Clyde, what’s the matter with you?' And I looked down and sure enough the blood was still running down out of the gash. The bite was around 2 inches long, right at the top of my thigh.

I could not call it an unprovoked attack. I had her in a cage she was unaccustomed to and I was hanging on to her. I never considered the fact that she was going to attack though. I was just interested in how she worked. And, well, I found out how."

(Courtesy of Clyde Roper, measuring the length of a giant squid specimen.)

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