strange behaviors

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Deep-Sea S & M: Why is this Squid Smiling?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 11, 2009

Some squid are terrible pigs.

Some squid are terrible pigs.

When it comes to strange behaviors, it’s hard to beat sex and reproduction.  You know the usual suspects:  Preying mantises eat their mates’ heads.  Sand tiger shark embryos eat their unborn siblings.  Male angler fish live as parasites on females.  But this week, special mention (in the category underwater kinkiness) goes to squid.  It turns out that many species practice the equivalent of Irish foreplay (“Brace yourself, Bridget”).

Apparently it’s a big ocean out there, so when you meet a potential mate you don’t want to waste time on small talk.   A team led by Dutch researcher Henk-Jan Hoving looked at 10 squid species and found that some of them get right to the point, employing sharp beaks, claws, penis-like appendages, and flesh-eating chemicals to commit traumatic insemination.  Hoving put it this way:

‘Reproduction is no fun if you’re a squid. With one species, the Taningia danae, I discovered that the males give the females cuts of at least 5 centimetres deep in their necks with their beaks or hooks – they don’t have suction pads. They then insert their packets of sperm, also called spermatophores, into the cuts.’

Alas, Hoving doesn’t explain how suction pads would have helped.  Would they have given the females hickies instead?  Or maybe they would have been able to hang on long enough to try sweet talk?

Well, probably not.  The sperm packets of another species, Moroteuthis ingens, are equipped with enzymes that dissolve the flesh and bore even deeper into the female’s body, according to Hoving.

The team also identified “the first known transgender squid.”  Some males of Ancistrocheirus lesueurii  mimic females in shape and size. This may just be “sneaker male” behavior, in which weaker males disguise themselves as females so they can sidle up to females (and glue flesh-dissolving love packets on them) undetected by their male rivals. But these male squid have actually developed female sex glands.  Hoving speculates that this gender bending may be an unnatural occurrence, caused by endocrine disruptors— sex changing chemicals— introduced into waters worldwide by human activity.

Oh, and you’re probably wondering about the pig-faced squid in the photo.  That’s Heliocranchia pfefferi, the piglet squid, recently photographed for the first time by Mike Schaat of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.   As with most squid species, its sexual behaviors are still unknown.  But with a smile like that, I’m not sure I want to know.

A brooding Gonatus onyx squid with an egg mass suspended from hooks on its tentacles.

Colorful sex lives: A brooding Gonatus onyx squid with an egg mass suspended from hooks on its tentacles. Photo: MBARI

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