Odd Creatures is a recurring column about the World’s Weirdest Animals written by award-winning science writer and author Bec Crew, and illustrated by the super-talented Aiyana Udesen
Cartoons aren’t just for television. Sometimes they infiltrate the deep sea and turn serious sea creatures into bulgy-eyed, spiky-haired goofs. Meet Taonius borealis, a species of transparent glass squid that lives up to a kilometre below the surface of the North Pacific Ocean.
With a pair of soulful blue eyes and a cigar-shaped digestive gland visibly suspended in its bloated, sac-like body, the glass squid has got a real look going on. The species is often found with its mass of stumpy tentacles, or arms, floating above its head like a crest, so scientists have given it another great nickname – the cockatoo squid. There are many species of glass squid found all over the world; some have orange polka dots, others have iridescent moustaches, and many have googly eyes, but none look quite as weary and in desperate need of a vacation as T. borealis.
Don’t let those under-eye bags fool you though; T. borealis is as spry as the next guy. Those dark red eye bands are actually special light-emitting organs called oracular photophores, which help the squid to disguise itself from its predators. By projecting a steady beam of light beneath it as it moves through the ocean, T. borealis can conceal its shadow from anything lurking below. And for extra control over how and where this light is projected, T. borealis can shift its eyes and its photophores from the front of its face all the way around to sit on either side of it. Known as ‘counter-illumination’, this is one of the most popular camouflaging strategies in the deep sea.
Another camouflaging strategy T. borealis takes full advantage of is bright red pigmentation. The further you plunge into the depths of the ocean, the less sunlight you’ll encounter, and this affects how visible different colors become. The color blue is great at penetrating the deep sea, and so is green, so when sea creatures want to be seen, they’ll produce these colors. Exhibit A. Red, on the other hand, needs a lot of sunlight to be seen, so in the deep sea, if you’re red, you might as well be black. Like a ninja.
Glass squids range from tiny – some of the polka-dotted adults are just 10 cm long – to colossal. The aptly named colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) can grow to three metres long, and that’s not including its arms. Add the arms on, and you’re looking at a length of around 14 m. With a body that’s around 60 cm long, T. borealis is pretty reasonably sized. It feeds on just about anything that it can catch using the hook-like teeth that run along its arms, including small crustaceans and fish.
Here’s a video of T. borealis’s close relative, T. pavo:
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew