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Why Are Squids So Smart? We Ask A 'Squid Nerd'

Scientists continue to be fascinated by squids. Pictured: Small squid in a tank at the Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientists continue to be fascinated by squids. Pictured: Small squid in a tank at the Sunshine Aquarium in Tokyo. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

Scientists continue to be fascinated by squids. The soft-bodied, ink-squirting cephalopods are incredibly smart — and in more ways than you might think.

“I think I’m probably the biggest cheerleader for squid,” Sarah McAnulty, a squid biologist at the University of Connecticut and founder of the nonprofit Skype A Scientist, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson.

“What’s really cool about squid and cuttlefish and octopuses is that they are so advanced, but they’re very different from us,” McAnulty says, adding the first cephalopod emerged about 500 million years ago.

For example, she says squids can camouflage themselves and are able to “communicate with that color change” — despite the fact that, as far as scientists can tell, squids are colorblind.

When it comes to avoiding death, squids are professionals. When they detect a predator, McAnulty says squids can squirt a “smoke bomb” of ink — called a pseudomorph — which creates an ink blob the same size and shape of their bodies to confuse the predator.

They are also great communicators when it comes to mating, she says.

“When reef squid are mating, they are able to signal to their mate that they like them effectively, and at the same time, signal to other males that they basically are aggressive and to not come at them,” McAnulty says.

Squids have evolved to adapt to their environments: Some deep-ocean squids have developed “bioluminescent light-producing organs,” she says.

“They diverged in evolution so long ago from us,” McAnulty says, “but they’re basically the most advanced, behaviorally, animals of their kind of lineage.”

McAnulty says she has been enthralled by squid since she was a kid, and remembers her reaction after checking out a National Geographic documentary from the library. It showed how cuttlefish, a cousin of the squid, used a peculiar and hypnotizing technique to ensnare prey.

“I was about 8 at the time and I thought that was the wildest thing I’d ever seen,” McAnulty says. “And I pretty much switched that day from being super into dinosaurs to switching over to cephalopods.”

But McAnulty isn’t the only cephalopod superfan around.

In Hakodate, Japan, an annual squid festival attracts thousands of spectators and squid lovers.

Watch on YouTube.

“Squid are a big part of their culture out there … they do something called the squid dance,” McAnulty explains. The dance is set to an upbeat song, paired with a series of clapping and arm movements to mimic a squid swimming.

“For a bunch of squid biologists, having a dance and a song about your study organism is about as good as it gets for us in terms of party songs,” she says.

Ashley Bailey produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray, and adapted it for the web with Serena McMahon.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson started telling stories on the radio when he was a kid and hasn't stopped since.