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The Squid Soap Opera

<< Cephalopod Articles | By , Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Lethbridge

In scientific terminology, I'm studying the reproductive strategies of Cephalopod Molluscs, specifically Sepioteuthis sepioidea. More bluntly put, I'm studying squid sex. Of course the papers and scholarly reports read more like the first sentence than the second. But for us out here studying the Sepioteuthis sepioideacompetition and the coyness, the social climbing and the brush-off, it's the second sentence that sums it up. And because the squid seem to take roles and use strategies that we humans are familiar with, we have no trouble translating the sex games into human terms. We watch and discuss and joke about the Squid Soap Opera.

It's easy to see the mating strategies as the equivalent of a soap opera because the squid are in many ways similar to humans. And because we know them as individuals, we also give them human names. All are permanently either male or female. Their lifespan is far shorter than ours, just over a year, and the business of sex is left to about six weeks at the end. They hang around in mixed-sex and similar-aged groups. Coming into maturity, 'teenagers' make fumbling and incomplete attempts at the real thing, gradually refining their performance to proper visual signals and full sequences. Males make a lot of splash and dash--competition and fights, stomping out of the group, moving off when they lose. Females are more stable, both to group and to place, they look the guys over and decide who's worth it. And overlaying all of this is the accident of time and place and personality that make them individuals for us.

Hard Times is a good example. He joined the Harbour Village group we have been watching on May 27th and hung around all the days until June 9th--now he’s gone. He was named for the damage on the left and right side of his mantle that suggested he'd had a difficult encounter with a hungry fish, quite common for the squid and one way to identify them. The name turned out to suit him well. He wasn’t the biggest male in the group of 10, and female squid have a definite size prejudice, but he got ignored more than mere size would suggest. When big Sandman and two attractive females were together in the group, he managed to hang around with the second largest, SuperGirl. He never seemed to get any action with her, though. A couple of Saddle-Stripe displays, no further. When Caro and Sandman got excited, Hard Times would go over and do a couple of aggressive Zebra displays, but no more, no real fight for her hand. Put plainly in anthropomorphic terms, Hard Times was a wimp. And like all wimps, he eventually just drifted away.

Sometimes our analogies run to human setting as well as roles. Again in this group, there were four mature females who seemed ready for maturity and mating at the same time. We called them the Sisters even though they probably weren't sisters. They faced the problems of growing up and finding true love together. But with only one or two males and size selectivity, Mara and Domino haven't found it yet. That doesn't stop them from hanging around the bar, from sending out "Yoohoo, I'm here!" Saddle displays to any male that might be interested. But the most they have been able to get so far is a bit of Flirting with a Stripe in answer. This week the three male teens have shown signs of early fumbling Zebras and pushing and shoving. Maybe in a couple of days they'll beold enough that they can stop the posturing (literally in this case) and get down to business.

Personalities matter too. Last year as the ten teens matured, one of the early male-male interactions was status-settling. Ritualized Formal Zebra display fight settle who's boss--the squid in the below position has more intense Zebra and claims the right to the girl. That’s fine, but Gappy seemed to have more (or less) than sex on his mind when he went into these competitions. We watched one morning as he came down a peaceful line of three courting couples, doing a Formal Zebra with each male in turn and winning. Fight over, he just went to the next, and after all the competitions he left the group. The opinion was unanimous, Gappy was having one of his temper tantrums.

Another way personality exerts an edge is in how large (and presumably how old) a squid is when he gets interested in girls. Again last year, the teens group picked up a couple of smaller squid, no doubt attracted by the song and dance. One of them,Napoleon, was decidedly precocious. Less than half their size at times, he'd still cuddle up to the big females and try to sneak a quick xxxx (well, you know). When one of the courting males broke into the Flicker visual display that indicated intent to mate, Napoleon would put on a big Challenge Zebra and come zooming in on the fun. Mostly the big male would stop the courtship and either Zebra back or actually chase the little pest away. I watched a pest-chase-return to courtship sequences one morning, it went of for forty minutes and eighteen interruptions and the mating never took place. We could almost hear the big guy sigh in exasperation ‘Oh, not again...’.

While not as active as the males, females have decided opinions about who they are interested in. One aspect of this is size, I watched Caro the other day when teenaged Vines came up to her in ‘hi there’ Flicker display, she jerked a few feet away and just looked at him. The day before when newly-arrived Sandman had beaten out Blanket in a Formal Zebra for her hand, she was considerably more enthusiastic. Enthusiastic is a relative term, mostly when female squid are approached by males in Flicker they lead them a merry chase. It's probably the squid equivalent of ’And how much have you got in your bank account?‘. With eggs simply left under rocks to mature, squid have no parental duties beyond choosing good partners. Evading fish predators is a critical survival strategy, going on a chase tests what he’s made of and whether he’s father material. A good chase also determines whether he's really serious.

As they become older and have accepted several males, females get more choosy. SuperGirl was initially delighted to have Sandman answer her flirting, short and medium speed chase and no ‘get lost’ Zebra displays. Finally, the man of my dreams. But she was far less interested in poor old Hard Times. And now that she's got sperm stored away in her spermatophoric sac, she's playing hard to get, for sure. An approach may be answered by a fast exit, often resulting in a Chase we can barely keep in viewing distance of, even with jet fins. Or she may reject with what we called a ‘not tonight dear, I have a headache’ Zebra display. When she's really experienced, an older female may reject any tentative male approach with an intense Zebra display that we called the ‘not if you were the last squid on earth’ Zebra. Go ’way, bug off, get lost!

Teens are fun to watch in our Soap Opera. They have all the freshness of youth and much of the fumbling. One will start up a Flicker--no preliminaries, no direction, just ‘hey, I can do this’. The signals seem to be ambiguous, some pale that looks like female Saddle along with the Fin Base Stripes that are part of male Stripe. They'll get to the Saddle-Stripe flirting stage and then let it drop, ‘now what am I supposed to do with him/her?’Eventually it tunes in, maybe from practice and watching the big guys do it, maybe just maturity. And then they will have their few weeks of glory.

So yes, I'm carefully recording details of reproductive strategies and intersexual competition and mating success. But we are also having a lot of fun watching fumbling teenagers and wimps and flirting females. The papers will be terse and quantitative, exact and descriptive. But I will also sit at my desk and remember Gappy's temper tantrum and wimpy Hard Times and Bald losing nine Zebras in a row to Bubba. I'll write about reproductive strategies, but I'll remember the Squid Soap Opera.

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The Cephalopod Page (TCP), © Copyright 1995-2014, was created and is maintained by Dr. James B. Wood, Associate Director of the Waikiki Aquarium which is part of the University of Hawaii. Please see the FAQs page for cephalopod questions, Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda for information on other invertebrates, and MarineBio.org and the Census of Marine Life for general information on marine biology.