Climate-adapting squid has scientists thrilled, puzzled

December 8, 2011 7:28:12 PM PST
A mysterious squid that lives along the Pacific coast could be one of the big winners in adapting to climate change. The squid is very large, very fast and very mean, but it's also willing to adapt.

The wild-looking animals are on the move with just two things on their mind: Finding food and making babies. The squid can get up to six feet long and weigh 100 pounds, and they are survivors.

"It can tolerate low oxygen," said Stanford Prof. William Gilly, Ph.D. "It can tolerate extreme temperatures, both cold and warm, and it can migrate wherever it wants. It's a very powerful swimmer."

Gilly is with Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station and is an expert on Humboldt squid.

"They are sort of the ultimate predator," said Gilly.

In the middle of those tentacles, there is a razor-sharp beak.

"When it grabs food, it engulfs the food in the arm and brings it to up the mouth, then it probably just sits there like a little mincing machine," said Gilly.

Gilly knows that first hand: He was badly bitten by a squid a few years ago and has the scars to prove it.

The squid got their name because they live in the Humboldt current off South America, but in recent years they've expanded their range north. Some have even been spotted in Alaska.

Scientists speculate that's because of warm water created by El Nino conditions, but the squid are doing more than just moving.

"The more we look, the more we're astounded to find a new way they can adapt to climate changes," Gilly said.

El Nino upset the balance of nutrients in the water, so the squid have less to eat. To compensate, it appears some squid have just stopped growing, and they are having babies a lot younger.

"They started reproducing when they might be eight inches long instead of 2.5 feet long," said Gilly, "so it's a huge difference in body mass, a difference in egg production of a few million versus a few tens of millions."

A side-by-side comparison of two squid from the same species and the same sexual maturity found that one was dramatically smaller than the other. Scientists still aren't sure exactly how long Humboldt squid live, and it's tricky to figure out how old they are.

Researchers look for a tiny crystalline bone in the head about the size of a grain of sand.

"You can take those little bones and cut them and polish them on sandpaper, and then count rings, like rings in a tree," Gilly said.

A computer image showed one of the bones magnified with the rings indicating the squid's age. A jumbo-sized squid probably lives a year or two, but the smaller squid have much shorter lives, so they have to make babies quickly.

Researchers think that's nature's way of keeping the species from going extinct.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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