Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Before Calamari, There Was Squid

By Ed Bruske
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 3, 2004; Page F01

What does a squid have to do to get a little respect?

It wasn't too long ago that squid was bait, something you wrapped around a hook to catch what you really wanted for dinner. As if that weren't bad enough, we then discovered calamari fritti, and suddenly every barfly in the world thought "squid" was Italian for "popcorn."

What's good for happy hour signals another ignominious turn for one of the animal kingdom's truly remarkable creatures. Consider these facts:
Squid belongs to a class of mollusks known as cephalopods, meaning head-attached-to-foot. Co-members include the mysterious nautilus, the cunning octopus and the inky cuttlefish. Fossil remains of Cephalopoda have been dated back 500 million years, well before the first indication of a dip for batter-fried calamari.

One of the smartest of invertebrates, squid have two large, unblinking eyes and an advanced nervous system. Beneath their transparent skin is a network of pigment cells that turn bright red to yellow to brown to blue, depending on the squid's mood. When startled, they can squirt ink and try to make their getaway. Squid were an early model for jet propulsion: they streak backward or forward by expelling water through a siphon in their body. One species of Atlantic squid is believed to migrate nearly 1,500 miles from the Grand Banks off Canada to its wintering waters off Cape Hatteras.

One species of squid near Hawaii uses bacteria to manufacture a light-producing protein, the same as fireflies. The squid beams its light downward as camouflage, tricking prey and predators by eliminating its shadow on the ocean floor.
Then there is the "vampire" squid whose tentacles are covered with sharp fangs, but it is rarely seen, since it can live at depths up to 3,000 feet. And thrill seekers continue their hunt for the elusive Giant Squid, although their search may be eclipsed by the discovery of a Colossal Squid. Scientists speculate that this squid -- a fearsome fellow with multiple claws, two giant beaks, and eyes the size of hubcaps -- could grow to 40 feet in length, and is possibly responsible for the long, ragged scars found on the heads of some sperm whales.

Fishermen use traps and lures to catch squid. Or they wait for nightfall and attract schools of squid with bright lights, then surround the squid with nets. The captured squid, usually between 3 and 12 inches long, are quickly frozen and brought to market in large blocks.

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