Monster squid menace Pacific coast

January 16, 2010

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.

Fisherman's friend

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.


Climate change promises big future for marine invertebrates

December 16, 2009

Lobsters that dwarf George the monstrous malacostracan will grace our tables in a warmer world, National Geographic News reports.

As the oceans’ temperatures rise, their pH will surely fall, with devastating consequences for calcareous marine creatures, whose supporting structures are based on the calcium carbonate species that cannot precipitate from acidic waters.

Topshells, bivalves and other delicious fruits de mer face a squishy future, as our ever-sharpening oceans preclude the construction of their mobile homes.

But just as we contemplate a future of dismal evenings spent pushing our forks through distressingly yielding post-apocalyptic paellas, news comes that higher carbon dioxide concentrations will provide a cornucopia of supersized lobsters, crab and shrimp.

A recent UNC Marine Sciences study indicates that marine crustacea will find it increasingly easy to gain weight as CO2 levels rise.

But readers even now reaching for the clarified butter might first wish to check the oil in their bandsaws, as the scientists found the higher CO2 concentrations helped the animals to bulk up their chitinous exoskeletons, rather than the delicious soft tissue favoured by gourmands.

Furthermore, collosal crab will remain resolutely absent from the menu if oceanic acidification proves deleterious to their favoured food: the corals.

Higher temperatures are expected to force the corals’ symbiotic algae to flee for cooler climes, “bleaching” the famed submarine gardens, and pulling the rug from beneath the ecosystems they underpin.

So seafood lovers should pay especially close attention to the outcome of this month’s COP15 talks in Copenhagen, lest our spineless chums prove more impenetrable than they already are.

Leech collars Aussie perp for armed robbery

November 19, 2009

A blood-sucking leech colluded with DNA-profiling Australian police to bring an armed robber to justice, National Geographic News and Associated Press report.

In 2001, two men burgled the home of a Tasmanian woman and stole “several hundred” Australian dollars. Perspicacious Aussie plod discovered an engorged leech at the scene, and promptly bagged it.

Peter Cannon was arrested some seven years later on an unrelated dope charge, and had his DNA profile taken as a routine part of the Tasmanian police’s investigation.

Astoundingly, the police were able to match his DNA sample to the stomach contents of the crime-fighting invertebrate. Cannon faces up to 21 years in jail if a conviction is secured.

His accomplice, who presumably avoided the advances of the haemophagic gumshoe, remains at large.

Argentine ants plot global domination

July 13, 2009

Humanity’s inevitable subjugation under the merciless lash of the invertebrates came one step closer today, as the BBC reports the encirclement of the globe by a vast, unbroken colony of Argentine ants.

Scientists presently cowering in Japan, Europe and the United States discovered a horrifying degree of fraternisation between geographically-disparate colonies of Linepithema humile, a species of ant once endemic to South America. Unwittingly, clay-footed humans have introduced the sextuped horde to every continent save Antarctica.

The ants are implacably hostile to other L. humile individuals who are not demonstrably members of their own colony. Kinship is gleaned from specific chemical signals issued from the ants’ carapaces.

Researchers have shown, for example, that encounters between the dominant European super-colony and the smaller Catalan colony inevitably result in scuffles; the sunburnt Europeans boistrously guzzle sangria and toss garden furniture into the pool, whilst mustachioed Iberian ants casually grope European females and overcharge for accommodation.

Somewhat unexpectedly, however, when ants from the European super-colony met representatives from the Japanese super-colony, it was all smiles. The ants “rubbed antennae with one another, never became aggressive, or tried to avoid one another.” Similar behaviour was observed between the Californians and Japanese, and indeed the Californians and Europeans.

The only plausible explanation, researchers claim, is that ants from the three dominant super-colonies are more closely related to one another than they are to members of the minor colonies.

“Absence or low levels of aggression at transcontinental scale, which may have derived from low genetic variation, may help introduced Argentine ants maintain expansive supercolonies,” the puny humans report in Insectes Sociaux.

“The enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society,” they continue.

Readers tempted to quote Kent Brockman are hereby relieved of duty.

Life in the shadows

March 14, 2009

Not as we know it

Last week saw the successful launch of the Kepler Space Telescope, designed to search our region of the Milky Way for extrasolar planets. One of the goals of the mission is to discover the frequency of “terrestrial” planets, rocky worlds between half and twice the size of Earth, and especially those in the habitable zone where life might arise. What would such life look like, were we able to visit?

Read the rest of this entry »

The lobster’s off

January 20, 2009

Crusty crustacean dodges death by broth

A 140-year-old lobster named George, recently captured in Canadian waters, is to be set free by the restaurant that bought him, according to a Reuters report.  The methuselan malacostracan briefly served as a mascot at City Crab and Seafood, but will be tipped back into the icy depths following the intervention of PETA.

“We applaud the folks at City Crab and Seafood for their compassionate decision to allow this noble old-timer to live out his days in freedom and peace,” said Ingrid Newkirk of PETA.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” added restaurant manager Keith Valenti.

Calculating a lobster’s age is an inexact science, but a rule of thumb (or perhaps claw) is that they pile on an additional pound every seven to ten years.  Incidentally, this makes me over 1270 in lobster years.

More than you ever wanted to know about lobsters can be found in a David Foster Wallace article for Gourmet Magazine.