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Once again Ferrebeekeeper plunges into the abyssal depths of the ocean seeking a bizarre and barely known cephalopod—the elbow squid. Elbow squid, also colloquially known as “bigfin squid” are deep sea squid of the genus Magnapinna. Although they have been known to science since at least 1907 when a juvenile specimen was found and categorized, the strange animals are a real enigma to scientists. No adult specimens were known until the 1980s and only in the cotemporary era of widespread deep-sea robots were pictures of the living animals obtained.
But WHAT pictures! These images were worth the wait: of all Earth creatures which are not microbes, the elbow squid may well be the most unfamiliar and alien in appearance. Indeed, I have seen plenty artist’s conceptions of extraterrestrial life and precious few looked as bizarre as the elbow squid. The animals have extremely long tentacles which dangle at right angles from 10 upper arms (which project at right angles from the squid’s cylindrical body. The visual impact of this crazy arrangement is even more dramatic than it sounds.
Shell oil used a submersible robot to film a specimen hanging around their deep water oil platform “Perdido” (which is 200 miles offshore from Houston in the Gulf of Mexico) and the squid’s tentacles were reliably 9 to 10 meters (26-30 feet) long. These animals are different from giant squid—but they are also giant squid.
So why on Earth do elbow squid have such long arms? We simply do not know. Some scientists speculate that it brushes along the ocean bottom gathering up sluggish meals with its long arms. Other mollusk theorists(?) think it is like a brittle starfish and lies on the bottom as the tentacles write around. Yet another school believes the ten tentacles are for active predatory grabbing—the squid is like a fisherman with ten lassos. Perhaps it combines these and other behaviors. Other cephalopods are well known for being versatile and clever.
I would love to tell you about the hopes and fears of this strange denizen of the deeps. What animals prey on it (Sperm whales and elephant seals presumably, but what else?)? What is its love life like? How long do they live? But we don’t even know what these things eat. How it would fill out a Zoosk profile is particularly beyond our kin. The elbow squid is at the tantalizing juncture between the known and the unknown. Undoubtedly we will learn more, but for now we will just have to be content that we have seen them at all.
The Cranchiidae are a family of squid commonly known as “glass squid” which live in oceans around the world. The squid are of no interest to commercial fisheries (yet) and a great deal about this family remains completely unknown. Most of the 60 known species of cranchiidae are small and inconspicuous–indeed the majority are transparent and thus nearly invisible. However the largest known mollusk, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni), is part of the family, (so it might be wise not to antagonize them on the playground).
Glass squid are notable for having stubby swollen-looking bodies and short arms except for one long pair of hunting tentacles. The majority of glass squid have bioluminescent organs which they use to hunt, to communicate and to disguise the faint shadows cast by their transparent bodies (predators of the deep can see even the faintest shadows cast by the dim light from the surface). The cranchiid squids themselves sport a variety of interesting and complex eyes which range from giant circular eyes to stalked eyes to telescoping eyes. This little gallery shows how delicate, diverse, and beautiful (and how utterly alien) these squid can be.
Juvenile cranchiid squid are part of the plankton and live near the surface where they hunt microscopic prey while trying to avoid thousands of sorts of predators. As they mature, they change shape and descend to deeper waters—indeed some species become practically benthic and can be found more than 2 kilometeres under the ocean. Glass squid move up and down the water column by means of a fluid filled chamber which contains an ammonia solution (which maybe explains why they are not on the human menu yet).