Tag Archives: cephalopods

Bottle Rocket

For about a day in my childhood, I owned a bottle rocket. A day, I say, because I’m pretty sure that on its maiden voyage the damn thing either exploded or blasted off to explore the final frontier, where no child has gone before: into a tree, or a mean neighbor’s yard, or on top of a roof. In any case, I destroyed or lost it so fast that I purposefully forgot the embarrassment of its destruction. But I never forgot its moment of ignition, the beauty of its ascension. Whether store-bought or made out of a soda bottle, a bottle rocket is an elegant design: Half-filled with water, air is injected into it with a bicycle pump until the internal pressure exceeds the strength of its cork and lift-off is achieved in an explosive spray and a wet contrail.

Jet propulsion in the animal kingdom is exclusively found in aquatic creatures: the nymphs of dragonflies, the sea slug-like Sea Hares, some species of fish, and most famously, the cephalopods: squid and octopuses. By forcing water in the opposite direction of momentum, and thanks to Newton’s First Law of Motion, these animals don’t just swim through the water they live in; they use it as fuel. No bird, bat, or flying lizard ever evolved jet engines in its wings to propel air through them. But isn’t there anything that flies through the air with the power of a bottle rocket? Of course there is.

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The Tiki God & The Squid

I’ve always had a strange repulsion and attraction to Tiki culture. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted, kitschy throwback to the 1950’s which involves cocktails, which is usually my thing. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of beaches, hate Jimmy Buffett, and can’t really envision myself as an orange-tanned old guy in loafers with a gold chain under his Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cigar over umbrella-spangled mai tais at Trader Vic’s. I like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain as much as the next guy, but there’s something slightly unsettling about celebrating the subjugation of an entire civilization by drinking fruity, emasculating cocktails from mugs fashioned after their gods.

A little background, for the rest of us haole: The Polynesian religion, which is practiced in many forms on island nations from New Zealand to Hawaii, including Tonga, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and Easter Island, has four major gods in its pantheon: Kane, the god of life; Ku, the god of war; Lono, the god of peace and fertility; and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. Kanaloa and Kane were often paired together in chants and stories as complementary forces: Kane represents fresh water, Kanaloa saltwater. Kane builds the first canoe, but Kanaloa sails it. Rather than life and death, Kanaloa and Kane represent urge and execution, wilderness and civilization. And though missionaries tried to recast Kanaloa as a sort of Satanic figure of death and darkness because of his association with the ocean’s depths, the character assassination attempt didn’t entirely succeed. After all, as the Hawaiians know, the most miraculous gifts come up from the spirit world of the deep.

This is a tiki totem of Kanaloa, who is symbolized by the squid. He is mentioned as being tall and very pale-skinned, and you can see how his long hair sweeps either side of his body like tentacles.

This is the bigfin squid, a rarely-seen cephalopod from the benthic zone, the ocean’s depths. It has been sighted fewer then ten times in its adult form, and was thought of as cryptozoological until it was filmed off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii in 2001.

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Whips, Capes, & Self-Mutilation

1. In all the time I’ve been talking about animal superpowers, I never thought to ask, “Is there any animal who wears a cape?” The answer: yes. It’s the Blanket Octopus of Australia, and its cape is the source of its power. Instead of squirting ink at its enemies, it unfurls a long membrane that makes it appear much larger than it really is.

I am Batman.

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Are there creatures who can use their beauty to devastate, or to defeat a threat?

Well, what is “beauty”? If it has any aesthetic sense at all, a male blobfish probably thinks a female blobfish is the prettiest thing in the sea. But I’d like to think that a doomed fawn can find an approaching tiger beautiful, and terrifyingly so. And perhaps a stag is beautiful to other stags, if mostly because it makes a fearsome impression. So you could say that beauty is an outward expression of health and strength, to attract mates or intimidate rivals. If it has components, you could say that size, color, grace, and symmetry all play a part. But in the end, it does live in the eye of the beholder.

Evolutionary psychologists who study the concept of beauty think it originated as a sense of utility. Take flowers, for example. They developed color and symmetry, nectar and aroma to lure insects. Humans almost universally find them beautiful, although they serve no immediate practical purpose to us. However, far back in our genetic memory, we might recall an artistic, sensitive caveman ancestor who fancied flowers more than the rest of his tribe, remembered where those flowers were, and was able to come back later and find the fruit those flowers became. It is my belief that the ability to appreciate beauty is a survival instinct.

Is there anything that creates beauty to survive? One example would be the cuttlefish, which can actually hypnotize prey. By flickering between different colors rapidly, or pointing their tentacles at their target and creating concentric rings of color moving up their arms, they stun their prey like an old-school mesmerist with a spiraling wheel:

But my favorite example, once again, comes from the deep sea. It’s a bioluminescent jellyfish. In the video below, you can see what it looks like with the lights on, and off.

Here’s a superpower closer to Dazzler’s, or Jubilee’s. When it bumps into something and perceives that it’s being attacked, this Alarm Jelly, Atolla wyvillei, creates a pyrotechnic light display that does two things:

1) Stuns its potential predator. Remember, to these creatures any light at all is a source of curiosity, so this must look like a visual hallelujah, stopping an animal in its tracks.

2) Illuminates the predator, while advertising that predator’s presence to bigger predators. The “alarm” jelly could also be called a “distress call” jelly. Touch it, and you’re not only no longer invisible, but everything in visual range that could eat you knows where you are. So the jelly’s beauty may not be deadly in itself, but it might just get you killed.

The Pretender

After several heavy posts in a row about extinction, I’ve decided to dedicate the following posts in the “Quantum Biology” series to something more light-hearted: Superpowers! We’ve already covered super-speed (The Pronghorn), mind control (Cordyceps Fungi), and regeneration (The Axolotl). Today’s superpower: Shapeshifting!

All octopuses have incredible powers of camouflage, changing their color and even their texture to blend in with their surroundings. The Mimic Octopus, which lives in the shallows of Indonesia, has gone further: it impersonates other animals. It has a repertoire of over 15 different species, including stingrays, jellyfish, brittle stars, flounder, sea snakes, seashells, anemones, and lionfish. If it wants to attract a crab, its main prey, it can imitate a female crab giving mating signals with a false claw. What’s more, it’s a quick and imaginative learner. In one case, a diver caught a mimic octopus unawares. After a few seconds of study, the octopus molded its tentacles into two arms, two legs, and a head, and turned black and blue to match the diver’s wetsuit; a miniature mollusk homunculus. The octopus impersonated a person.

The significance of this is profound. Many animals mimic other animals, but they’re usually born to mimic one species, and have no idea they’re doing so. (The poisonous monarch butterfly and the non-poisonous viceroy butterfly, for example.) Only two species can shapeshift to imitate many different animals, depending on the situation and need. Those two species are the mimic octopus… and us. And I believe that ability to emulate other animals is what has made us the dominant life form on Earth.
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