Some of the coolest fishes in the ocean are the flying fishes, a family of about 64 species. They all have enormous pectoral fins, which act as wings when a fish launches itself into the air. I’ve witnessed this on the Gulf of Mexico and was amazed at just how far they can go.
But I never knew that squid fly, too. Who would have thought they could? They don’t have large fins that can act as wings for gliding. They don’t have massively muscled tails to give them the necessary rush of speed for breaking the water surface and soaring through the air. They’re heavy and squishy and soft. How can they fly?
For all these flying squid species, jet propulsion is the key for getting out of the water in the first place. First, a squid expands its mantle—the cloak of soft muscular tissue that surrounds its body—which fills with water. Then the squid quickly contracts it to send the trapped water shooting through a flexible tube below its head, called the funnel or siphon. By changing the position of this funnel, a squid can propel itself in almost any direction. Underwater, squid use jet propulsion to pounce on swift prey and escape intimidating predators. But sometimes jetting through the currents is not enough to make a successful getaway—sometimes, a squid needs to get out of the water altogether. So they fly.
Biologists still do not fully understand the mechanics of squid aeronautics, but based on accumulating anecdotal and photographic evidence, they have no doubt that the phenomenon is real and widespread.
Scientific American has a great little article on how two scientists (a married couple — that’s like geek squared!) saw flying squid and began asking around to learn if other biologists had seen similar behavior. The responses they received led to a 2004 paper on the phenomenon, which unfortunately was not illustrated because at that point, nobody had ever managed to grab a photo of squid in action.
That changed last year, when retired geologist Bob Hulse photographed flying squid during a cruise off the coast of Brazil. The photo is reprinted in the Scientific American article, but it’s tiny and thus impossible to make anything out. Go here for a gargantuan version (warning: big file size) and click to magnify it even further. I confess to having a squee moment when I saw it.
The best part of the article, however, is in one of the comments. A reader wrote, “In Spain, where squids are a highly appreciated food, there is a squid species sold in fisheries and named voladores — ‘flyers.’ I always wondered about the origin of the name, but now, I know why.”
In other words, the Spanish — and probably many other seafaring and/or seafood-eating cultures around the world — have known about flying squid for a long time. Science just now caught up.
(Note: Ooo! Just found a fabulous pic of a Red Flying Squid (Ommastrephes bartramii) in the Sea of Japan. No attribution, though.)