I’m always surprised by how numerous and varied the cephalopods are.  A quick jaunt down the taxonomical branches of their family tree reveals marvelous creatures to delight even the most jaded marine biologist–and, we are still discovering new cephalopods all of the time!

Today’s post, however, is not a larger examination of squids and allied cephalopods (although I have been thinking about adding a “mollusk” category to this blog and embarking, to some small degree, on such a task), instead we are concentrating on a very specific and unusual behavior practiced by certain squid in dire circumstances—namely flying.

A Red Flying Squid (Ommastrephes bartramii) zips along above the Sea of Japan. Notice how the squid has altered its shape to become aerodynamic.  Original photograph by Geoff Jones.

Flying fish are well known for their aerial prowess, but flying mollusks (for such is, of course, what squid are) seem almost to strain credibility.  To imagine a cousin to the stolid clam whipping through the air propelled by jet propulsion takes temerity…or at least it would, if such behavior were not well documented.  Many different species of squid from around the world have been observed leaping out of the water to avoid heavier predators. In fact the common names of several commercially important squid reflect this: Spanish fishermen hunt for voladores “flyers”, Nototodarus gouldi is commonly known as the arrow squid, and Japanese Flying Squid (Todarodes pacificus) is a mainstay in Ika Sushi.

The Caribbean Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea) propels itself above the waves with a jet of water.

These flying squid are not merely popping out of the water for a moment before returning: some of the creatures form their tentacles into a fan/wing then stretch out a membrane running along their body and actively flap the fins at the front of their mantle.  The Journal of Molluscan Studies cites an example of a squid flying 6 meters (20 feet) above the water for a total distance of 55 meters (180 feet) thus outdoing the Wright Brothers’ first flight!  I wonder if the ancient belemnites (extinct squid-like cephalopods of the past) were ever able to fly in such a way or if this is a new feature of cephalopod evolution–maybe in a few million more years we will have even more deft flying mollusks zipping around with the sparrows.

A cool acronym…or a harbinger of days to come?