Flight of the Squid

New photos offer the best evidence yet of mollusk aeronautics

Courtesy of Bob Hulse

Marine biologist Silvia Maciá was boating on the north coast of Jamaica in the summer of 2001 when she noticed something soar out of the sea. At first she thought it was a fish. After tracing the creature’s graceful arc for a few seconds, Maciá realized it was a squid—and it was flying.

The sighting led Maciá, who teaches at Barry University in Florida, to co-author one of the first studies on squid aeronautics in 2004. She and her colleagues noted that squid as small as 20 centimeters could launch themselves as high as two meters above the water and propel themselves, actively flapping their fins and spiraling their tentacles, for a distance as great as 10 meters. The paper collected sightings of at least six distinct squid species squirting themselves as high as three meters over the waves using jet propulsion, the process of taking in and forcing out liquid to generate thrust. Sometimes the squid flew solo, sometimes in packs, sometimes with enough force to match the speed of boats.

Mounting photographic and anecdotal evidence is helping scientists puzzle out the mechanics of squid flight. Ron O’Dor, a senior scientist at the Census of Marine Life, is analyzing images taken last year off the coast of Brazil that may provide the best-ever photographic documentation of airborne squid. “When you look at some of the pictures, it seems they are more or less using their fins as wings,” says O’Dor, who is hoping to calculate squid velocity, among other details, from the images.

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