Discovered in the deep: the squid that makes a decoy out of its own skin

Self-camouflage is just one of the tricks of Brenner’s bobtail squid, a newly found species that is also helping research into microbes in the human gut

Bobtail squid are the second smallest group of squid in the world, at between 1cm and 5cm from neck to rounded, stumpy butt, and they only come out at night.

In 2019, scientists named a new species, Brenner’s bobtail squid (Euprymna brenneri), after finding them while night-diving off the Japanese island of Okinawa. “When you shine a light on them, they freeze,” says Oleg Simakov from the University of Vienna, one member of the squid-finding team. This makes them easy to catch in a hand net.

While they might have been easy for the scientists to capture at night, during the day bobtail squid adopt a fascinating form of camouflage. They bury themselves in the seafloor, and flick sand grains over their head and body – sticking them in place with mucus produced by cells in their skin.

The ocean is one of the world’s last truly wild spaces. It teems with fascinating species that sometimes seems to border on the absurd, from fish that look up through transparent heads to golden snails with iron armour. We know more about deep space than deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the depths.

As mining companies push to industrialise the sea floor and global leaders continue to squabble over how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will profile some of the most recently discovered weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, hardcore and mind-blowing creatures. They reveal how much there is still to learn about the least known environment on Earth – and how much there is to protect. 

If a keen-eyed predator still spies them, they have another trick in their arsenal. By releasing acid from their skin, they quickly shed their gooey, sandy coat, which then hangs in the water as a decoy, distracting the attacker while the squid escapes. At night, when they hunt, the bobtail squid use a different form of disguise: camouflaging themselves against the light of the moon beaming down by switching on dim lights across their bellies.

Brenner’s bobtail squid
Brenner’s bobtail squid was named as a new species in 2019. Photograph: Gustavo Sanchez

When scientists brought the living squid from Okinawa into the laboratory, they started sequencing its DNA. “We found that there was one species that didn’t match with any other previously reported,” says Gustavo Sanchez, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. On closer examination, this new squid also looks different from the others. The females have enlarged suckers on their arms, something that has previously only been seen in males.

The new species is named after Nobel prize winner, Prof Sydney Brenner, who several members of the team worked with before he died in 2019. Brenner was especially interested in cephalopods, the big-brained group of invertebrates, including squid, octopuses and cuttlefish.

Compared with octopuses, which are aggressive and usually try to eat each other, bobtail squid are much more peaceable and easier to keep in captivity. Studies of other bobtail squid species and their symbiotic glowing bacteria have been giving scientists insights into the relationship between humans and the microbes in our guts.

Brenner’s bobtail squid appeared in a 2021 study that casts light on their evolution. “The lineage that corresponds to this new species can be clearly separated into two groups,” says Sanchez. One in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the other, including Brenner’s bobtail squid, in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

“These have different evolutionary roots,” says Sanchez. The two geographically distinct groups of bobtail squid split apart at the end of the Oligocene epoch, roughly 30m years ago, when the ancient Tethys Sea was coming to an end, blocking the connection between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Contributor

Helen Scales

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the ‘forest of the weird’
More than a mile beneath the Pacific Ocean, is a seascape of oddly shaped corals and a glass sponge named after ET

Helen Scales

11, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the crustacean with eyes for a head
Shrimp-like Cystisoma are protected from predators by being virtually invisible – thanks to unique retina and a body that casts almost no shadow

Helen Scales

14, Sep, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the ‘Elvis worms’ that sparkle in the darkness
In 2020, scientists found sparkling Peinaleopolynoe on hydothermal vents in the eastern Pacific – and were irresistibly reminded of the king of rock’n’roll

Helen Scales

07, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: is this the world’s longest animal?
A submersible off the coast of Western Australia chanced upon a 45-metre-long deep-sea siphonophore arranged in a feeding spiral, trailing its deadly tentacles

Helen Scales

30, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the extraordinary sawshark with a weapon-like snout
With the help of fishers in Madagascar and Tanzania, scientists named two new species of rare sixgill sawsharks

Helen Scales

07, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the rainbow fish that’s born female and becomes male
Scientists in the Maldives were only able to reach the rose-veiled fairy wrasse by using specialised diving gear

Helen Scales

19, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the sea cucumber that lives a jellyfish life
The Pelagothuria natatrix is an extremely rare species of sea cucumber – with a gelatinous body, it spends most of its time swimming

Helen Scales

03, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Nobel-winning stock market theory used to help save coral reefs
Portfolio selection rules on evaluating risk used to pick 50 reefs as ‘arks’ best able to survive climate crisis and revive coral elsewhere

Karen McVeigh

28, Nov, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Pharmacy in the sea: Dolphins ‘use coral as medicine for skin ailments’
New research suggests the cetaceans may be self-medicating for their skin ailments, adding to evidence of the medicinal properties of some corals and sponges

Sofia Quaglia

19, May, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Discovered in the deep: the anglerfish with vampire-like sex lives
A deep trawl has brought up a potentially new species of a fish whose extreme mating methods include permanent physical fusion

Helen Scales

01, Feb, 2023 @6:00 AM