National Geographic

Flight of the Squid

This morning, I received a strange letter. The envelope carried the subtle scent of the sea, and the immaculate lettering on the front was clearly and carefully written in actual ink. The note inside read:

Dear Brian,

I am but a lowly squid, dashing through the water, and nomming what I can, even my own kind. While I have the freedom of the water, I have always wanted to fly! I see the flying fish and I get so jealous! Can you help?

In hope,

Sad Sea Squid

PS: Do you think the girls would think it was cool if I flew?

I hadn’t expected to start fielding pleas for advice from disconcerted marine life. But who am I to refuse a cephalopod’s aeronautic dream? Since the letter contained no return address – and my efforts to get the post office to send a letter to the middle of the Pacific proved fruitless – I can only hope that the somber squid is able to read my response here.

Dear Sad Sea Squid,

Thank you for your letter. I can’t say that I’m an expert on all things tentacular – a teuthologist, or squid specialist, would be more closely acquainted with you than I – but I’ll do what I can to help.

You need not be jealous of flying fish. If you are a squid of the surface waters, chances are that you already have all the skills you need to be a soaring cephalopod! Please pardon me if this sounds overfamiliar with your specialized anatomy, but I have no doubt that you’re already an expert at flapping your fins and jetting water through your funnel to move along through the sea. All you need is confidence, and a bit of practice.

I do not know what species of squid you are – you neglected to tell me in your missive – but a variety of your kin have taken short trips above the sea. Caribbean reef squid, Sepioteuthis sepioidea, have been seen to fly six feet in the air for a distance of over thirty feet – impressive for a seven-inch squid! Red arrow squid (Nototodarus gouldi) off Sydney, Australia, Longfin inshore squid (Loligo pealeii) in Long Island Sound, ommastrephid squid in the northwestern Pacific, and even the jumbo Humbolt squid (Dosidicus gigas) have been seen flying above the waves, too. Not all squid that can fly do so, and both large size and colder water temperature may inhibit flight abilities, but the number of cephalopods who have already flown only goes to show that you don’t need any special equipment to try an attempt of your own.

Jetting yourself above the water will be the easy part. For a streamlined exit, fold your fins against your mantle and keep your arms together as you jet water to break the sea surface at a shallow angle. Staying in the air long enough to fly is the trick. You might need to experiment to find out what works for you. Some squid spread their arms and arm membranes out in a radial pattern and keep their fins still, others keep their arms folded tightly while rapidly flapping their fins, and a few keep jetting water while flying. Once you’re in the air, there’s more than one way to fly. And don’t let anyone tell you this is “just gliding.” If you’re in the air, actively controlling how you’re moving, you truly are flying. Just remember to fold your fins and arms again on re-entry, so you don’t awkwardly smack the surface. Style is essential for a safe flight.

And you don’t have to try this alone. Some squid take solitary flights, but others burst from the water in groups of dozens to hundreds. Who knows? You may start a new fad among your kind, which certainly wouldn’t hurt if, as you mention, you’re trying to get the attention of potential dates. (Beyond that, though, my general lack of familiarity with roving sex tentacles and other cephalopod reproductive matters prevents me from offering further advice on that front.) But I want to stress that flight also has more immediate benefits. Should you find yourself chased by skipjack tuna, or any other predator, jetting into the air is a wonderful way to escape and fool your pursuer.

I’m afraid that is all I can tell you. I hope this reply has been of some help to you, and that you will not be a sad sea squid much longer. Good luck, and have a pleasant flight.

- Brian

[Many thanks to Scicurious for taking on the persona of the sad sea squid for this post. The conceit I used to set up this piece is fiction, but my advice to the imaginary squid is based on the research listed below.]

References:

Maciá, S., Robinson, M., Craze, P., Dalton, R., Thomas, J. 2004. New observations on airborne jet propulsion (flight) in squid, with a review of previous reports. Journal of Molluscan Studies. 70: 297-299

Muramatsu, K., Yamamoto, J., Abe, T., Sekiguchi, K., Hoshi, N., Sakurai, Y. 2013. Oceanic squid do fly. Marine Biology. Online ahead of print. DOI: 10.1007/s00227-013-2169-9

There are 10 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Zach Miller
    February 20, 2013

    That was incredibly strange, but charming, too. I recommend turning this into a series of “Dear Abby” columns for disheartened animals.

  2. WhySharksMatter
    February 20, 2013

    Yes! Moar animal advice!

  3. scicurious
    February 20, 2013

    Dear Brian,

    Thank you so much for answering my question! This sad sea squid is sad no more! I’m going to start doing some fin lifts to make sure that I’m in good shape, and then my friends and I are ready to fly!

    Thanks again!
    Soon to be Soaring Sea Squid

  4. Neptsnecklace
    February 20, 2013

    The sexy life of squid – always intriguing

  5. Ralph Dratman
    February 21, 2013

    Video??

  6. Brian Switek
    February 21, 2013

    WSM: Glad you enjoyed the post! When I find another suitable candidate, I’ll give this another try.

    Soaring Sea Squid: My pleasure. Good luck!

  7. Cargo
    February 26, 2013

    Yamamoto’s paper made CosmosTV too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0mxHIcaug0

  8. Susan Barker
    February 27, 2013

    I really enjoyed this post!
    Brian, the way you and Scicurious presented the information is wonderful. Anything whimsical catches my attention. Not only is this full of wonderful whimsy it is also full of excellent information.
    I agree that this should become a series of ‘Dear Brians’.
    Science + Whimsy = Awesome.

  9. Univa
    February 28, 2013

    Quite cute :) It’s really adorable! :)

  10. RODOLFO CHAVEZ PEREZ
    May 8, 2013

    Qué hermosos son los calamares !!!!

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