Japanese Flying Squid (Todarodes pacificus)

Hi everyone, due to poor planning and the fact that I am helping at a conference all day, we’ll have a guest post for today. Enjoy!

The greatest challenge in writing for “OUR WILD WORLD”, especially as a guest contributor, is to find a good animal to blog about. I am confident that the Japanese Flying Squid meets the lofty standards to which this blog’s readers have rightly become accustomed.

The Japanese Flying Squid has three factors in its favour. First of all, it’s a squid, and squid are funny. Even the word “squid” is funny. Secondly, it’s Japanese. It’s not that Japanese are funny (don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Japanese are not funny either) – it’s that most animals don’t get citizenship in any country. Finally, it flies. There’s a strong “WTF?” (“what, they fly?”) aspect to the Japanese Flying Squid. So let’s take a closer look at them.

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An awesome picture of a flying squid doing what it does best. Image source

As you will have guessed from the name, Japanese Flying Squid live in the northern Pacific Ocean, and in fact are sometimes more mundanely called the “Pacific flying squid”, which just doesn’t cut it as far as I’m concerned. Japan is a relatively small country, and the Pacific is a big ocean, so it isn’t surprising to learn that Japanese Flying Squid are found not only near Japan, but also along the Chinese and Russian (Siberian) coasts, and then down the other side of the Pacific Ocean along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts. And off Vietnam too – that’s a lot of Air Miles.

Japanese Flying Squid live in the upper layers of the ocean, in water up to 27 oC in temperature. They tend to live only about a year, but they pack a lot into this year.

Once the female squid matures, having been fertilized by a thoughtful male in advance, it lays between several hundred and several thousand eggs, which hatch into larvae within a week. The little critters then eat, get bigger and migrate to their mating grounds, where the cycle starts anew. Then they die.

Japanese Flying Squid get bigger as they eat, but they level off around 0.5 kg, and can be half a metre long. Admittedly, that’s not very large compared to the giant squid, much less the colossal squid, which is even bigger. But the giant and colossal squid are too big to fly, so score one for the Japanese Flying Squid. There is even speculation that the legendary kraken, as pictured, was in fact a Japanese Flying Squid, rather than a giant squid as commonly believed.

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Non-flying giant squid – or possibly a kraken – from an old drawing.

Japanese Flying Squid have all the usual interesting accoutrements of squid: eight arms and two tentacles, with suction cups familiar to science fiction movie buffs; obligatory ink sacs, used to defend against predators; a beak; and of course three hearts. But what makes the Japanese Flying Squid truly impressive is that to get around it eschews the two fins on its body in favor of a powerful muscle which takes water in and expels it a high velocity, giving it a form of jet propulsion. The Animal Research Department of the Imperial Japanese Navy would have been happy to have perfected echolocation from bats, but surely jet propulsion was high on its wish list.

Japanese Flying Squid have been observed flying (and “flying” is surely an appropriate description, as opposed to “gliding”) for up to 30 metres. They are thought to use their airborne capability to save energy while migrating (someone can work out the physics of this) and to evade predators. This latter argument sounds more logical, since most of the Japanese Flying Squid’s predators are confined to water – some birds prey on the Japanese Flying Squid, but mainly it has to worry about sperm and baleen whales, dolphins, seals and rays. Since Japanese Flying Squid larvae eat plankton, then graduate to small fish and crustaceans, with occasional bouts of cannibalism when stressed, you can see it is tricky being in the middle of the food chain.

It is difficult to study the Japanese Flying Squid in captivity, because they don’t like being penned up, get stressed and act unnaturally. That sounds natural to me. But, as you now know, we actually know a fair amount about them – especially that they fly!

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