Environment & Science

The squid: So misunderstood

A giant squid lies on the beach after it washed ashore on January 19, 2005 in Newport Beach, California.
A giant squid lies on the beach after it washed ashore on January 19, 2005 in Newport Beach, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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The word “squid” calls to mind enormous, mysterious attackers, the menaces of campy horror films. A science writer who speaks Wednesday night in Long Beach about squid, including some Pacific Ocean dwellers, seeks to tell more of that animal’s story.

These creatures called cephalopods — sea animals with prominent heads and feet — may not have spines. But they’ve been the backbone of Nobel Prize-winning research in marine science, biology and neurology. Writer Wendy Williams says that discovery astonishes her.

There’s a hundred years of research that’s gone on to study how human neurons function by studying how they function in the squid, because they’re basically the same cell.

The same — but in squid, nerve cells are much, much bigger. That’s great for medical research into questions like Alzheimer’s disease, Williams says. The part of the neuron that acts as a nervous system transmission line is an axon, and in a squid, that part’s much bigger too.

That axon is sometimes as thick as a pencil lead. So you can see it and handle it and study it.

Those same squid that reveal so much for medical research can elude marine scientists. Over a decade or more in Southern California, 5-foot-long Humboldt squid have attacked divers and washed up on beaches.

Suddenly these huge numbers of jumbo squid arrived on the California coast and began swimming in large numbers on the coast, and some all the way even to the coast of Alaska.

In her new book, Williams also writes about her travels with Stanford University researchers, who’ve been tagging and tracking the squid to try and learn their patterns.

It’s a great mystery. No one really knows why they came. And it turns out that this year there are not really many of them on your coast at all. So suddenly they’ve somewhat disappeared. They come and they go, and no one really knows why.

To study squid is to embrace mystery, Williams says. She named her book for a mysterious sea monster, a legend of Scandinavia, a giant creature with a head and arms that would wrap around ships and pull sailors to their deaths. She’ll talk about “Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid” Wednesday night at the Aquarium of the Pacific.