Back in July 2009, when I reported on the Anchorage Horror, a correspondent alerted me to another terrifying invasion that menaced the Pacific coast of the United States: los diablos rojos had arrived in California.
The Humboldt squid, which shares its name with the cold current that sweeps up the west coast of the New World, is a large, agressive, marine invertebrate, qualities that place it high on a list of disconcerting species.
Now, a combination of increasing numbers and a propensity to show up in unexpected locations has propelled it to number one.
Dosidicus gigas are ordinarily found in cool, deep waters off the coast of South America. But they have recently been found as far north as Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.
Such changes in distribution have prompted scientists to ask more about their migratory patterns. One hypothesis suggests that the squid are especially well-adapted to the hypoxic zone, an oxygen-poor portion of the water column lying between 200 and 600 metres below the surface.
Changes in oceanic conditions, linked to climate change and the influence of the El Nino Southern Osscilation, have caused a vertical expansion in the hypoxic zone. Together with the depletion of competitive predatory species such as tuna, these changes have brought the squid to the attention of humanity.
Marine biologists are quite literally grappling with the mystery of the invertebrate invasion, New Scientist reports, and are attempting to fit the cephalopods with radio tags — an endeavour that requires skill, strength and nerve.
The squid are so enraged by the intervention of the scientists that they squirt caustic ink at the humans’ eyes, and flash deep red by activating their chromatophores, a behaviour that earns them their Castillian moniker — the Red Devil.
And who can blame them? By comparison, the traditional tool used to haul 50 lb Jumbo Squid from the depths, the jig, makes a fakir’s sword-swallowing act look like a blancmange-eating competition. Small wonder that the creatures are roused to sufficient heights of knavishness to interest California’s game fishermen.
So is the Humboldt Squid’s fierce reputation justified?
Roger Uzan, who filmed the menacing molluscs for an otherwise faintly preposterous documentary, noted they “appeared more curious than aggressive” when approached on their own terms. Indeed the species has even exhibited cooperative and communicative hunting behaviour.
So whilst we scan the skies, plaintively wondering whether we are alone, we might also consider the possibility that intelligent, alien lifeforms with an evolutionary pedigree that exceeds our own by at least 480 million years can be found much closer to home.