The Cephalo-Inspired Technology Of The Future

34:29 minutes

Credit: Roger Hanlon, from Where’s The Octopus?

Cephalopods have an array of fascinating—and bizarre—features. Researchers have seen octopuses sprint across ocean floors on two arms; flamboyant cuttlefish pulse black bands across their bodies; and squid squirt ink to attract mates. And though cephalopods’ behaviors and biology are curious in their own right, materials scientists and engineers see these amazing tentacled creatures as a never-ending source of ideas for their biomimetic designs.

“Cephalopods are such exciting sources of inspiration,” says Alon Gorodetsky, a materials scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “The things they do, how they move, even their brains—it’s like science fiction stuff.”

[Biomimicry in action.]

In this segment, Ira chats with Gorodetsky and other technologists about an array of cephalopod-inspired innovations, from adaptive camouflage to self-healing materials. Plus, SciFri’s Brandon Echter and Lauren Young wrap up this year’s Cephalopod Week with a look at John Steinbeck’s 1940 voyage with marine biologist Ed Ricketts to the Sea of Cortez, and give a roundup of the week’s ceph-centric stories, hands-on activities, and events.

[John Steinbeck and the mystery of the Humboldt squid.]

Here are just some of the ways applied cephalopod science could benefit humanity:

Camouflage on Command

It’s difficult—sometimes impossible—to spot cephalopods in the wild. These soft-bodied creatures have mastered the art of camouflage, and can seamlessly blend into bedrock or coral reefs with just a quick change of the pigments in their skin.

Gorodetsky and a team of researchers at UC Irvine are studying cephalopods’ sneaky color-shifting abilities to see if similar tricks could be used to create adaptive camouflage clothing. One of the molecular tools squid and other cephalopods rely on for their technicolor displays is a protein called reflectin, which serves as a building block for color-changing structures in cephalopod cells. Gorodetsky says that in some of these structures, layers of the protein and other materials alternate like the stack of beef patties and buns in a Big Mac.

[The secrets of cephalopod camouflage.]

Cephalopods can manipulate the layered proteins (like instantly changing the texture and thickness of beef patties or buns) to quickly shift their color. Gorodetsky is trying to replicate this process with artificial materials. In the future, he says, these techniques could be used to create garments that can change colors on demand, or military uniforms that can adapt their appearance by sensing the environment.

Self-healing Fabric of the Future

Squids can be swift predators. They are armed with sharp, rigid beaks, strong tentacles, and many suction cups—each inner ring lined with tiny teeth. These protein-based teeth are like nails and help a squid latch onto its prey. Materials scientists at Pennsylvania State University have discovered that these teeth are not only tough, but can also self-heal.

[How big was this squid?]

Battles with prey and predators may damage of the ring teeth, which may be the reason for the protein’s regenerative properties, explains Melik Demirel, an engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University leading the research project. In fact, the protein that make up the teeth share similarities to those found in silk, and could be used to make materials that can self-assemble. As demonstrated in the video above, Demirel’s team created a squid ring protein “glue” that—with just a little water, heat, and pressure—can mend tears and rips in fabrics.

Tiny, Powerful Jets

A baby California market squid jets through seawater filled with particles to track the movement of water. The video is slowed 30x. Video courtesy Diana Li and Alyaa Taleb

Squid are always on the move. Mainly because, just like humans, squid will sink if they don’t swim,  explains Diana Li, a doctoral candidate at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. They have evolved unique and efficient ways to stay afloat in the water column.

One way: flapping the graceful wings on the side of their bodies, as if flying underwater. The other is a method of locomotion more commonly associated with the sky and space: jet propulsion. The torpedo-shaped creature has an impressive force behind its push, and can even accelerate as fast as a rollercoaster or Formula One racecar.

“They’re like underwater rockets,” Li says.

Li studies how squids large and small propel themselves, which gives insight to engineers like Kakani Katija of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “We can look at these tiny organisms and maybe be able to elucidate something about physics we didn’t know before,” Katija says. And perhaps new industrial or aerospace innovations might result, from studying this underwater jet set.

[Jet-setting cephalopods.]

An adult California market squid on a “squid treadmill.” Li and her team measure the squid’s jets after the flash of light. The clip is slowed 4x. Video courtesy Diana Li

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Segment Guests

Alon Gorodetsky

Alon Gorodetsky is an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, California.

Melik Demirel

Melik Demirel is Director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies and a professor of Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Diana Li

Diana Li is a biologist and science communicator in Monterey, California. She has a Ph.D. in Biology from Stanford University.

Kakani Katija

Kakani Katija is Principal Engineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California.

Brandon Echter

Brandon Echter was Science Friday’s digital managing editor. He loves space, sloths, and cephalopods, and his aesthetic is “cultivated schlub.”

Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re continuing our happy Cephalopod Week. As you might know, every June, we celebrate the wonder of cephalopods, from the spooky vampire squid, to the camouflaging cuttlefish, and the octopus nicknamed adorabilis, which might just be our mascot. It’s a cute little thing. You’ve got to go see it on our website. And all week, we’ve been getting squiddy with it, gathering geeks at events around the country. And let me tell you. The excitement at these events, like this one in New York. Wow, it was palpable.

CROWD: We love cephalopods!

SPEAKER 1: Oh, that was beautiful.

IRA FLATOW: It was. Where else would you hear a chant like that? Well, the Cephalobration continues today. And we’ve got our Master of Cephalopod Ceremonies here, Brandon Echter, to catch us up on all the action this week. Welcome back Brandon.

BRANDON ECHTER: Hey Ira. Happy Cephalopod Week.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. You, too.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. So much happened this week. We learned a ridiculous amount of new cephalopod facts, at least I did. And I hope everyone else did, too. So not only did we have those amazing events throughout the country– with Atlas Obscura in New York, and San Francisco, and Chicago, in Los Angeles– we also had institutions from around the country sharing stuff as well, places like the Field Museum, and the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

The American Museum of Natural History did probably the most soothing thing in the world by vacuuming their giant squid in the whale diorama that hangs in the hall there. And actually they created a video that gives the background of that battle, which was really fascinating. Vancouver Aquarium, stuff like that. But we also heard from places like Gizmodo, and Popular Science, and the New York Times. The Times was on it. And we were able to pull together some really fascinating facts about cephalopods that I didn’t even know this week.

So for example, there’s this one genus of octopus called the blanket octopus. So the females of the species– when they’re threatened, they open their arms and release this giant almost like Superman cape. It’s huge. And it’s fascinating looking. And these species– the females are actually 10,000 times larger than the male. Females can be like up to 6 and 1/2 feet long. And the males are just little tiny guys. But interestingly enough, this is one of the few genuses that are immune to the sting of a Portuguese Man of War. So juveniles of the genus are known to go up to Portuguese Man of War and steal the stinging tentacles and use them as weapons to defend themselves.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding?

BRANDON ECHTER: I know, right? They’re really super heroes. It’s a very super hero origin story there. And then, the blue ringed octopus, which is the most venomous species to humans– the males of the species actually can’t really tell the difference between males and females. So they have this scattershot mating strategy, where they mate with both. And we learned all sorts of really fascinating stuff.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a great video up on our Facebook page.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah, absolutely. So KQED Scienties Series Deep Look actually produced this amazing video about squid skin and how they use their skin to hide in plain sight essentially. So squid have these sac in their skin– chromatophores and iridophores– that hide them in plain sight, which was just fascinating to see. And as the title the video is You’re Not Hallucinating, It’s Just Squid Skin, it definitely makes you feel very– it blows your mind.

IRA FLATOW: All right, well, hang around. We’re going to come back and talk to Brandon later.

BRANDON ECHTER: I’ll see you in a bit, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: We’ll see you a little bit later. But right now, we’re going to talk more about these camouflage abilities. Because the theme of the rest of the hour is how there’s a lot of awesome technology inspired by cephalopods, what we like to call applied cephalopod science. And up first, a scientist who’s learning from the camouflaging ability of these animals to design better camouflage for humans. Alon Gorodetsky is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at UC Irvine. He joins us today from KUCI. Welcome to Science Friday.

ALON GORODETSKY: Hi Ira. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. So what’s so special about what cephalopods can do, in terms of camouflage? Give us a taste of some of their abilities.

ALON GORODETSKY: It’s really remarkable, I mean, some of the videos that you can see of what they accomplish in the wild. They can basically change color, and texture, and shape in some way. Really, it’s the equivalent of me sitting here, and then backing onto a wall, and turning into a file cabinet, maybe without even ever having seen a file cabinet. It’s just that amazing in the ocean.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So how does it actually work? I mean, you said it changes its color and its texture also. What’s going on? Let’s drill down into a cellular level. What’s going on on the cephalopod?

ALON GORODETSKY: So their skin functions like a really advanced bioelectronic display. So you have multiple types of cells embedded within these transparent dermal and epidermal layers. And these cells are called iridphores, chromatophores and leucophores. This is very general for most cephalopods. And each of those cells performs a different function. So some will reflect white light, diffuse white light. Some will change area and size and filter the light that goes through the skin. And some will shift the color that’s reflected back. And together, they can perform some really amazing feats. I think you guys have some videos.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we have incredible– over the years we’ve been doing cephalopod week, we’ve had incredible videos of shapeshifting cephalopods. So now, let’s talk about you as an engineer. How do you adapt what we know about cephalopods camouflage cells to your own work? How do you how do you apply these principles?

ALON GORODETSKY: So we specifically focus on proteins that are found in all three of these cell types. And we use these proteins as materials and try to understand them. Because they’re found in larger structures within the cells, where those structures are what enable some of the color changing abilities for cephalopods. And we make very, very simple systems from these proteins. And we learn from them. And then, we try to translate these systems into something more sophisticated.

So an example of one type of structure found in these cells is you have multiple layers of a protein that alternate with other materials, essentially. And you can change the thickness and some of the properties of these layers to change the color of the cell. In some ways, it’s analogous to the stack that you would have in a Big Mac, where you have alternating layers of bread and meat. But imagine if your Big Mac could change color, texture, and taste on the fly as you’re eating it. That, to me, would be no less remarkable to what these types of cells can do.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s a many layered thing that’s going on there in the skin?

ALON GORODETSKY: Yeah, for one specific cell.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. It almost sounds to me like there’s sort of a computer screen change going on, different things make different colors make different shapes, I guess.

ALON GORODETSKY: Yes. And I think it’s even more advanced than what we can really do artificially, in terms of computer screens. So we try to learn from those systems, and then make something that’s essentially completely artificial and that captures some of the key properties of these types of structures. So you would be able to have a wearable technology that can do some of the same adaptive or real time color changing tricks.

IRA FLATOW: You mean like camouflage for a uniform, or a tank, or something like that?

ALON GORODETSKY: Yes. That will be one of the potential applications. And not just in the visible– because that’s where the animals focus– we’re also trying to do this in the infrared, to allow objects to conceal themselves in different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So you hide behind it?

ALON GORODETSKY: That would be the goal, yes.

IRA FLATOW: And so how close are we to seeing something practical?

ALON GORODETSKY: We have some exciting things in the lab. So I think we’re only a few years off. Two or three years from really practical, useful materials that you might even be able to wear based on the things we’ve learned.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, great new clothing.

ALON GORODETSKY: Thank you, Dr. Gorodetsky, for taking time to be with us today.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you so much, Ira.

ALON GORODETSKY: It’s really my pleasure. I could be one of the people yelling about Cephalopod Week.

IRA FLATOW: They are fascinating. I mean, they’re just amazing. Thank you for, as I say, taking time to be with us today. Now, Alan Gordievsky who is talking about creating clothing and things– he’s an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of California at Irvine.

We’re going to also now switch gears and talk about, well, what if you could heal a rip or a tear in your genes? Alan’s stuff that could maybe hide your genes– what if you can repair your jeans simply by throwing your pants in the dryer? You press the edges of the rip together. They stick together, right? We bring you the story of a self-healing material inspired by squid suckers with my Melik Demirel. He is Director of the Center for Research of Advanced Fiber Technologies, Professor of Engineering at Penn State University in University Park. Welcome, Dr. Demirel, to our show.

MELIK DEMIREL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Now, let’s talk about self-healing properties here. Your research on that material– what, it started with a fishing trip, is that right?

MELIK DEMIREL: That’s correct. So we were looking for specific proteins. And in the last five years, we were interested in the squids, specifically the suction cups. There is a protein that’s very similar to your nail and hair. And so we were interested in this protein, and its sequences, and its properties. So there are around 350 different squid species around the world. And we went around the world and collected several of them. Together with my students and collaborators, we went to the Mediterranean, Atlantic. A collaborator of mine went to Hawaii, and Argentina, and so on. So we collected several samples.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s see. You brought back these squid. And they have something unique, some unusual protein in their suction cups?

MELIK DEMIREL: Yeah. The protein was known. But what we were interested in is how we can engineer this protein so that we can make a new material out of this. The material that is inside the suction cup is called [? Scudrintit ?] protein. Basically, it has an ability to self-heal, self repair itself.

IRA FLATOW: So how do they work? You just stick the proteins together and they just attach to one another?

MELIK DEMIREL: Yeah. We dissolve the protein in different solvents. And you apply it to conventional textile. It could be cotton, wool, polyester, or any of them, basically a garment or a cloth that you have, your t-shirt. And then, you can rip the clothes. And you apply heat– and it’s barely body temperature– and then minimal pressure, which it will then start to heal. It’s very much like a glue. But a glue that works at the molecular scale through the self-repair, self-assembly.

IRA FLATOW: When I think of long, skinny proteins and I think of glue, I’m thinking like pasta sticking together when you’re cooking. Is it something like that?

MELIK DEMIREL: Yeah. It is basically– you can think about it like that. Basically, these are long protein sequences that can self-assemble very much like the pasta. You take the pasta. And there’s individual pasta. And you start cooking it. When you dry it, it’s almost impossible to take individual chains out of it. So basically, it’s already entangled to each other. In the molecular case, these proteins entangle differently by using hydrogen bonds and so on. But that example represents a similarity.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking about the Cephalopod Week with Melik Demirel, who was talking about self-healing garments. Do we have a garment yet, Dr. Demirel?

MELIK DEMIREL: Yes. We made several examples of garments. And we tested them for applications in different areas. One of them is to defense against chemical and biological threats. The other example was we made a coating for medical applications. Hernia is one of the major problems in clinical surgery. And we applied our coating for hernia repair. And we have seen good results in animals.

IRA FLATOW: Could you possibly heal wounds with it, this kind of idea?

MELIK DEMIREL: Possibly. It could be extended to biodegradable gel for wound healing in the near future.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that nature has thought of just about everything, that all we need to do is find an application that we could use?

MELIK DEMIREL: So what we observed in this case was the self-heating property. And I always had this question in my mind. What are the other proteins that can give us different properties that we don’t know? So can we take nature’s evolution and put it into lab and accelerate it? So now, we are working on a new tool that can basically squeeze the billion years of evolution of proteins to ours. This is a technique that we are developing and moving forward with that.

IRA FLATOW: Why would cephalopods need this self-healing ability?

MELIK DEMIREL: We don’t know exactly what is the mechanism of self-healing. But as you know, the suction cups have to grasp the prey. So the fight between the prey and the squids causes deformation and fracture in these proteins. Remember, cephalopods, especially the squid, is an invertebrate. It does not have any bones. So these proteins, nail-like proteins, are very strong. And they deform, they crack. And basically, we believe that this self-healing mechanism is helping to repair these nails or these protein structures.

IRA FLATOW: So then, a cephalopod might lose an arm, and then repair itself?

MELIK DEMIREL: Not necessarily the arm, but inside the suction cup– these proteins specifically bite to the fish that it’s attacking. So after the fight is over. It can help to repair. But we don’t exactly know the mechanism– how it works in nature. Because what we are doing is applying temperature. And generally, nature doesn’t use temperature. It’s probably using some other chemical mechanism. But we don’t know that yet.

IRA FLATOW: You’d like to know that, I’ll bet.


IRA FLATOW: That will be the next study. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.

MELIK DEMIREL: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Melik Demirel is Director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technology and Professor of Engineering at Penn State University.

We’re going to take a break. But the Cephaloparty is not over. It’s going to continue through the break. And we’re going to look at another technology that scientists are looking at in cephalopod’s repertoire. And this is the under-water jetset squid. Squids get around with little water jets. Maybe we could too. We’ll find out how that works. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We talk with a lot of scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory about all the neat stuff they shoot into space. But I wanted to bring on a guest today who works in a different sort of jet propulsion laboratory, one where the jets are not spacebound, but underwater instead. Diana Li is a PhD candidate at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. She studies how squid move. And she joins us by Skype today. Welcome to Science Friday.

DIANA LI: Hi Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And we’re also joined by one of Diana’s collaborators, Kakani Katija, who is Principal Engineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Katija.

KAKANI KATIJA: Oh, thank you so much. It’s great to be able to talk with you.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, very happy to have you. Let me ask you, Diana. Fishing trips are a common theme on the show today. So you were just out on a fishing trip earlier this week? Did you catch anything, what you were looking for?

DIANA LI: Yeah. So we went out last Friday. And we caught four squid right off of Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey Bay. And actually, I’m seeing the Bay right now from the window, from the room I’m sitting in. So we go out to look for California Market Squid. They are about 9 or 10 inches in size. If you order calamari and they serve you fried rings at the restaurant, it’s probably what you’re eating. So that was the animal we were looking for. And we found a couple.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you didn’t get it to fry it up there. You were going to study other things.

DIANA LI: Yeah. So we caught them for experiments. And one of the things I’m very interested in is how they swim. And I find squid to be very interesting and unique in the way that they swim. Because they combine two different strategies. They use fin activities. So they can wave, or undulate, or flap the fins that you see on one side of their body. But what they’re most famous for, that you were alluding to, is jet propulsion. So I like to think of squid as nature’s underwater rockets, jet propelling around in the ocean.

IRA FLATOW: Now, Kakani, from an engineering standpoint, is this impressive or unusual, what squid do?

KAKANI KATIJA: It is quite impressive. And one of the projects that I know Diana has been working on lately is looking at what the small baby squid, the squid paralarvae, are actually able to do. And so there’s reports that the small paralarvae are actually able to swim about 50 body lengths per second. And to put that into context, we can think of like someone like Usain Bolt, one of the most amazing sprinters that we know. And he is clocked at running about five to six body lengths per second. And so imagine Usain Bolt having to run about 10 times faster. But because of the size of these animals– the paralarvae are about a millimeter to two millimeters in size. It would mean the Usain Bolt would have to run about 10 times faster, but in honey, to be able to experience the fluid regimes that these small animals live in.

IRA FLATOW: How are they able to do that? What’s the secret?

KAKANI KATIJA: Great question.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the secret that have that they can just zip around? That’s an amazing speed, through the water. Kakani, what can you as an engineer learn from this?

KAKANI KATIJA: Well, so that’s a great question. And I know Diana’s been looking a little bit more at the musculature and also the mechanisms that allow for these rapid jet propelled motions. And in terms of engineering, there’s a lot of different applications for that. For instance, if we’re interested in trying to move fluid or affect or control the temperature, let’s say, of electronics, as they become smaller and smaller, you can imagine a micromixer that’s similar to the jet propelled fluid that these small squid paralarvae are actually able to achieve. That could be a potential application. There’s many others as well.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. Diana, do you think you’re going to figure this out, how we can move this fan?

DIANA LI: Well, I hope to figure out just a very small part of it. But what we already know is the secret sauce to how they can produce these huge accelerations and move so quickly is in the nerves of the animal. So even in the very tiny baby squid, the size of a grain of rice, we think that the strategy is similar to what adults have. So they have these huge, huge, huge nerve’s. The giant axon, it’s called. And when you have an axon on that super big, it’s really easy to conduct electrical signal down this axon. Because there’s less resistance.

So because signal can travel super fast along the whole body, they have that mantle, that long mantle, that contracts to make these jets. So they can produce really strong muscle contractions at a couple milliseconds notice. So I think that’s part of how they can make these impressively fast jets. But I hope to find out more about how they’re interacting with the fluid, especially these small animals that Kakani was saying that to them the water feels less like water and more like honey. So they have a very different life that they experience at that size. And we’re hoping to understand more by imaging how the fluid is moving around these animals as they swim through the water.

IRA FLATOW: Do other marine animals share these giant nerves? I’m thinking of Eric Kandel, who made a career and got a Nobel Prize out of studying the sea slug for the giant nerves they had.

DIANA LI: Yeah. There are other marine animals that have what are termed these giant axons. They’re not exactly the same. But they’re functionally similar. The crayfish definitely has it for the powerful tail flip. There are analogs in other vertebrates like fish, with their M cells. So these types of nerves exist across many animals. And it seems like these animals have solved similar problems using similar strategies, though not exactly the same.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It would be pretty hard, Kakani, I imagine, trying to imitate this. What would you use as an analog of a giant nerve?

KAKANI KATIJA: Oh, that’s a great question. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges about bio-inspired design. And that’s part of the reason why studying squid, not only jet propulsion but also their fin activity, is a holy grail of underwater vehicle design, right? How do you replicate these kinds of motions with these soft materials that have such high efficiencies when it comes to swimming?

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll wait to see what you come up with. Very eager to have you back on when you learn more about it. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

DIANA LI: Thank you so much.


IRA FLATOW: Kakani Katija is a Principal Engineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing. And Diana Li is a PhD candidate at Stanford Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California.

Now, before we say goodbye, in the remaining minutes of our hour, we want to bring back our Master of Cephalopod Ceremonies, Brandon Echter, and Digital Managing Editor at SciFri. Hi, welcome back, Brandon.


IRA FLATOW: And we’re also joined by another ceph-head on the SciFri staff, Lauren Young, our Web Producer. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN YOUNG: Hey, Ira, how’s it doing? How are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: I know you weren’t a wonderful literary piece on our website for Cephalopod Week, this story about the tale of the author John Steinbeck and the little mystery of the Humboldt squid, the mystery. What’s the mystery?

LAUREN YOUNG: Yeah. Who would have thought that John Steinbeck was in any way related to the Humboldt squid? Yeah, in 1940, in March, he went on an expedition from Monterey in California. And he left with a marine biologist and a close friend of his, Ed Ricketts, to the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortes. And they explored the area, and recorded marine wildlife in the area, and documented a bunch of different species. And the expedition ended up resulting in a couple books, the Log of the Sea of Cortes and also Ed Ricketts ended up becoming an inspiration for the character Doc in Cannery Row. And then, later in 2004, it ended up becoming an inspiration for a lot of different other biologists and writers. And some people ended up deciding to retrace the steps.

IRA FLATOW: And so what was the mystery that they were trying to solve?

LAUREN YOUNG: Right. So it ended up, when they went back in 2004, they tried to see what the changes were in the Gulf. And they ended up finding an unpredictable predator there, the Humboldt squid, which was interesting to the biologists. Because Ricketts and Steinbeck did not see any Humboldt squid at all. They saw some other squid. But it was definitely not the Humboldt squid. So that’s what the biologists were basically puzzled by, trying to figure out why they are here now.

IRA FLATOW: Did they figure it out? Did something change in the squid? Or did something change in where they were living?

LAUREN YOUNG: Right. So there are a lot of actually interesting hypotheses, which you can read about in the article. But they vary from climate change, differences in water temperature in the Gulf, as well as differences in fish population because of overfishing in the area, as well. So there’s a lot of different juggling hypotheses and trying to figure out the life history of the Humboldt squid in the Gulf.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It’s a great article. And Brandon, what’s going on around the country? Bring us up to date. Are we going to still continue with our Cephaloparty?

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. So even though today is the last day of Cephalopod Week, the Cephaloparty does not need to end. So one of the really cool things about Cephalopod Week this week is that a lot of aquariums and institutions all around the world were participating. We saw research institutions from places as varied from the United States and Canada, to France and Israel, to aquariums like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the South Carolina aquarium doing octopus encounters live on video on Facebook and on Periscope.

And we also had our live events, where we had undersea marionette puppet shows and actual octopuses in the studio with them. And just because we’re ending here doesn’t mean that you can’t do stuff at home. So we have a ton of– our education team has been working hard to create a ton of really amazing cephalopod resources for us. And I actually have something for us to play with here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I love that stuff.

BRANDON ECHTER: So look at this. So I’ve got to beaks here. This is actually the beaks from the Humboldt squid. And I’m going to give one to you real quick. And you can actually learn a lot from these beaks.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, it’s big.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. They’re big. But did you know that you can actually– using math– calculate, based on the size this beak, how big the Humboldt squid it came from actually is? So–

IRA FLATOW: It would have to be a big squid. Help me describe for our listeners. It looks like a giant parrot beak.


IRA FLATOW: It’s just a part of the beak. But it is, I’m going to say, a good two inches across.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. I was going to say. It’s maybe a little smaller than a baseball right now.


BRANDON ECHTER: But It’s huge. But you can actually, using this beak, figure this out. So there’s been a ton of research of this over the years. And there’s this one formula in particular that was found by researchers at Texas A&M University, where, if you measure the lower rostral length of the jaw, you can figure out the mantle length. So the lower rostral length is this flat part right here. And on this small one here, if we measure it out, it is–

IRA FLATOW: While you do that, let me remind everybody that this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

BRANDON ECHTER: Here with some math. So this particular, this one that I have, which is much smaller– it’s maybe about the size of a golf ball– is 1.3 centimeters. Now, using this formula– and I’m not going to read it all out. Because it’s a very long– it’s got a lot of long numbers in it. We can figure out that the Humboldt squid this came from actually– the length of its mantle is 0.509, meters, which is about 1 and 1/2 feet, maybe a little bit more than that. And for that one over there,

IRA FLATOW: Oh, this must be huge.

BRANDON ECHTER: Oh, my God. So let’s measure it out. So we’re measuring it out. And that’s about 3 centimeters. And using that same technique, that is 1.11 meters. And that is about 3.66 feet.

IRA FLATOW: 3 and 1/2 feet?

BRANDON ECHTER: 3 and 1/2 feet.

IRA FLATOW: For a– wow. For a squid.

BRANDON ECHTER: And you can use this to figure out the body mass of a cephalopod and stuff like that. So don’t worry if you don’t have access to squid beaks. Ariel Zych, our Education Director, did a great job of 3D scanning one of the beaks. So you can actually play with them on our website, sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek. You can see that and all of our stuff there. And you’ll be able to play around with it, move it in 3-D space. And if you have access to an institution or a professional 3D printer– you probably can’t do it at home– you’ll be able to print one out yourself.

IRA FLATOW: You can take that. I saw it up on our website there. It’s incredible. You can rotate the beak around. And you say that, if you have a good 3D printer, you can run that photo through it and it’ll print out?

BRANDON ECHTER: If you have a good one. We actually went to work with some folks at NYU to get these scanned. But I would actually suggest going to your local research institution, or a library, or somewhere that has a really high quality printer, rather than using your home one. And it’s not just that. Earlier this week, you may have noticed our office smelled a little– this morning, when you came in, you may have noticed our office smelled a little squiddy.

IRA FLATOW: Squiddy, yes.

BRANDON ECHTER: That’s because yesterday we were making squid prints, which is another way you can actually learn about squid anatomy. So we were literally putting paint on squid and seeing the prints pulled out and creating some really beautiful, if a little smelly, pieces of art. So and you can use that to take a look at– basically do an anatomy lesson of squids. And you could find this and other stuff like that, including creating your own jet setting cephalopod on our Educate page and at sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek.

IRA FLATOW: And we had all of those great events around the country.


IRA FLATOW: We heard some of the cheering that went on here in New York.

BRANDON ECHTER: Oh, yeah. And I think one of the– so in each of these events, we actually had experts from various institutions. One of the experts, the one in New York, Sarah McAnulty, who studies the Hawaiian bobtail squid, was talking about working with cephalopods in general and has said that octopuses have personalities. Cuttlefish have personalities. Squids may not have personalities. And octopuses actually are really good at using their siphon to hit you in the face with water. So yeah, there were events all over the country. But–

IRA FLATOW: They are smart, those octopuses.

BRANDON ECHTER: Oh, man. They’re so smart. And it’s great to see them in video. And it’s great to see them in– unfortunate like dead ones. But you should actually go to your local aquarium and see them live. Because they’re really amazing to behold in life.

IRA FLATOW: And you may get a handle one.


IRA FLATOW: They may let you handle one.

BRANDON ECHTER: Maybe. You may have to get in on that. But–

IRA FLATOW: They’re not great pets. You can’t really keep them at home. It’s hard to keep making a reef aquarium for them.

BRANDON ECHTER: Yeah. And you might not be able to handle one. But you may be able to see an aquariist handle them, or a cephalopod wrangler.

IRA FLATOW: Shout out to all those Aquari across the country.


IRA FLATOW: Get ready for the invasion of the cephalopod geeks. They’re coming.

BRANDON ECHTER: They’re coming for you.

IRA FLATOW: All right, thank you very much. Brandon Echter, our resident Cephalopod Party Starter, also in charge of Cephalopod Week. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

BRANDON ECHTER: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Quicklky before we go, you can check out everything on our website at sciencefriday.com/cephalopodweek. Cephalopod One last thing now, wishing a well deserved retirement to Manoli Wetherell, long-term NPR Sound Engineer and Emeritus Member of our SciFri family. She’ll be retiring real soon now. Best wishes to Manoli. And I’m happy to call you a friend and a colleague for 35 years.

Charles Bergquist is our Director. Our Senior Producer, Christopher Intagliata. Our Producer is our Alexa Lim, Christy Taylor, and Katy Hiler. Rich Kim, our Technical Director. Sarah [? Fishburn ?] and Jack Horowitz are Engineers at the controls here at the studios of our production partners, the City University of New York. Have a great Cephalopod Weekend. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

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