October 22, 2010
Stanford researchers help get your hands on - and in - a Humboldt squid this weekend in Washington, D.C.
The Squids-4-Kids outreach program sends frozen Humboldt squids to science teachers who want to dissect one in their classroom with their students. To date, 60 orders from science teachers around the country have been filled.
By Louis Bergeron
If you've ever wanted to dip your finger in squid ink or roll a squid's gooey guts between your hands, you'll have the chance to do both at the Squids-4-Kids exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this weekend.
Stanford University marine biologist William Gilly and his team will have eight jumbo Humboldt squid carcasses available for hands-on activities ranging from the scientific to the artistic on Oct. 23 and 24.
Visitors will get to help dissect a squid and make "squid prints" on paper using the creature's arms and tentacles and finger paint. They also can make jewelry from the rings of chitin similar to the stuff that fingernails and hair are made of that are inside the suckers lining each of the squid's eight arms. There are also clusters of suckers at the ends of each of the squid's two retractable tentacles.
"The chitin rings make wonderful earrings and necklaces," said Julia Stewart, a graduate student at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, where Gilly is a professor of biology. Stewart will help with the exhibit this weekend, which is part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival held on the National Mall this month.
The Squids-4-Kids outreach program sends frozen Humboldt squids to science teachers who want to dissect one in their classroom with their students. The squids come with a lesson plan and dissection guide. Teachers can sign up for a squid on the Squids-4-Kids website. To date, 60 orders from science teachers around the country have been filled.
Humboldt squid swim along the Pacific coasts of North and South America. Gilly has studied them since 2000. Recently, Humboldt squid have been moving north along the coast of California and some have even reached Alaska. Gilly, Stewart and the rest of the research team are trying to figure out why the squid are on the move.
"We want to know where they are going and what they're eating," Gilly said. "These squids are voracious eaters and can have a pretty big impact when they move into a fishery."
Humboldt squid can reach lengths up to 6 feet and weigh over 70 pounds. They typically eat small fishes that live offshore in dense schools and invertebrates such as krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that whales also love to feast on. But with the squids' northern migration, they are also eating bigger fish, too. Some of the fish in their diet are the same ones people like to eat, including hake (a type of whitefish also called Pacific whiting), rockfish, sardines, anchovies and salmon. The main predators on adult Humboldt squid are large marine mammals, especially sperm whales.
The weekend's activities also will include what may be the first-ever weighing of a Humboldt squid brain, thanks to the suggestion of Haden Plouffe, an avid young squid enthusiast from Michigan, who emailed Gilly asking how heavy the creature's gray matter is.
Gilly had never weighed a squid brain, as the researchers usually measure and weigh the whole animal, after which they analyze its stomach contents.
But Gilly's curiosity was piqued by Plouffe's question. During their email correspondence, they decided to collaborate on weighing a squid brain at the festival on Saturday, when Plouffe and his family will be there, celebrating his 12th birthday.
Plouffe describes himself as "a big fan" of Gilly's ever since he first saw the scientist on a National Geographic video about Humboldt squid when he was about 4 years old.
As Haden's mother, Kimberly Plouffe, put it, "This is as exciting for him as meeting Michael Jordan or some other big sports star."
Gloves and guidance will be provided for anyone who wants to dissect or engage in other hands-on-squid activities at the exhibit this weekend.
Squids-4-Kids is run by Hopkins Marine Station in partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ken Baltz, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, will be on the mall this weekend with Gilly and Stewart.