Squids Speak Alphabets...but Without using their Mouths

Squids are some of the most amazing creatures on our planet, and I feel like scientists are always finding out new and interesting facts about these strange, alien-like animals. Recently, the Journal of Neuroscience published a piece that gave us even more insight into squids. What exactly did Taiwanese neuroscientists Tsung-Han Liu and Chuan-Chin Chiao discover and publish? Well, squids might be able to "speak". 

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Squids are able to change colors at a moment's notice - whether it be their whole bodies, parts of their body, or even creating patterns of shifting colors. As part of their experiment Chiao and Liu wanted to see how, and potentially why, squids changed colors. 

To do this, they placed electrodes in different part of the squid's optic lobe in their brains. According to the scientists, when they stimulated different spots on the lobe, the squid changed colors in the same body part. This then made Chiao think that the optic lobe may control the muscles that manipulate the squid's pigment cells.

Wired did a wonderful report on this strange case, in which they noted Chiao's surprise at how the experiment went. "When Chiao started out, he thought the optic lobe would be organized like the human cortex, with the pigment on different body parts correlating with different locations in the brain: a squidunculus. Not so."

Unlike a human's, it seemed that the squid's body parts weren't singularly represented. In fact, their body parts could be represented, and affected, in more than one spot in the optic lobe. This has some seriously interesting consequences for how we not only understand squids biology, but how we might be better able to understand their communication and what the changes to their skin colors might mean.

According to Chicao, "It’s like the squid has an alphabet of patterns—14 by Chiao’s count—which repeat in a mosaic within the optic lobe. It’s like if your keyboard had hundreds of keys, but still only 26 letters."

But, studying squids brains is difficult because they are so drastically different from our own. What does these 14 color changes communicate to other squids? Why have the set of 14? What can we learn by studying their behavior? How closely related are their communication patterns to humans or other animals?

Right now, Chiao and his team are trying to record and better capture the different combinations of pigment patterns and what they might mean to another squid. Are they having complex conversations? Are they trying to figure out how best to mate? Are they gearing up to fight? Hopefully, in a few more years we'll better understand this strange creature and the power, and potential depth, behind its communication patterns. 


This above image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.    Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert. Common squid from the Belgian continental shelf. Picture taken in the lab on board of the RV Belgica, of a live specimen to preserve colour and structure of chromophores.