BOOK REVIEW: Geeky octopus and squid, the jock

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By Wendy Williams
Abrams, 21.95, 224 pages

Most kids of my generation, the baby boomers, got their earliest impressions of big cephalopods from seeing the giant squid attack the submarine Nautilus in the film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and a giant mutant octopus, with only six arms, attack San Francisco in “It Came from Beneath the Sea.” Neither experience was designed to instill much admiration of such beasties. As I grew up, I came to believe that really big cephalopods lived miles underwater, and that the ones I would encounter in shallow water were one- to two-feet long at the most.

I held this view until my face-to-face encounter with a five- or six-foot squid while snorkeling along a reef in 1972. It did not seem afraid of me, which probably should have set off alarms at the time, but I only remember the eyes. It looked curious. From reading Wendy Williams‘ “Kraken,” I now know that it may have been trying to figure out if I was edible. Eventually, it lost interest and moved leisurely on its way. I haven’t eaten calamari since.

Since that adventure, I have been interested in all things octopus and squid. Ms. Williams is an engaging writer with an obvious zest for her subject. I learned a lot from the book. For instance, my squid was likely a humboldt. They can reach upward of six feet in length and are actually quite common. Some Pacific Islanders claim that they swim in packs and have killed humans. Ms. Williams doesn’t think that legend is true, but points out that they can be dangerous if riled.

We also learn that the squid is the jock of the cephalopod family, while the octopus is the geeky intellectual. People familiar with the Animal Planet and Discovery channels will know that an octopus is likely to be a great puzzle solver. They are versatile, and one was even apprehended walking down a sidewalk in California several miles from the sea; it was placed in an aquarium and became a star performer. An octopus will usually accept human interaction. Squid are generally faster and stronger, but usually avoid humans; mine was apparently an exception.

The cephalopod family is one of the oldest and most durable on earth, having outlasted the dinosaurs, and they may eventually outlive us. There may well have been 100-foot giant squid in the recent past, but now they seem to be in the range of 40 to 50 feet. The biggest known octopus weighed 400 pounds, although there are reports of some that have weighed as much as 600 pounds.

The octopus is probably the smartest animal without a skeleton, and is almost certainly as intelligent as a dog or a cat. However, they can be dangerous, as can squid. The blue octopus has venom as poisonous as most vipers, and the squid’s powerful beak and feeding arms can be quite formidable, depending on the animal’s size and disposition. Ms. Williams also tells us how these creatures change color using symbiotic bacteria.

Ms. Williams is a well-published author and journalist. In the process of telling us about these fascinating creatures, she also tells the story of the scientists who study them. In these places, the book bogs down a bit, and I found myself skipping ahead to the part where the animals were once again the primary focus.

The book is named after the kraken, a sea monster in Norse mythology that was probably a giant squid. As frightening as these tales can be, what is disturbing is that these creatures had the dexterity and potential for higher intelligence, and could have become competitors with us humans for the highest spot on the food chain. We don’t know why they did not evolve further. There may be enough food in the depths that further development was unnecessary.

However, who is to say that some cephalopods did not evolve further? Perhaps they did. The possibility of 60-foot creatures living in underwater cities and building things is food for thought. After all, we know far more about the surface of the moon than of Earth’s deepest oceans. If such communities do exist, one can only hope we find them before they find us.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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