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Squid Land on Scientists' Plate

Jumbo mollusks are studied to solve such mysteries as why they're washing up in O.C.

March 18, 2005|Claudia Zequeira | Times Staff Writer

More dead jumbo squid are washing up along Orange County's coastline, and although that's bad news for the creatures, it's good news for scientists eager to learn more about the mysterious deep-sea dwellers.

"This is a scientific opportunity because we can get an endless amount of information from the samples we're collecting," said Eric Hochberg, curator of invertebrate zoology with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

The Humboldt squids' diet, where they spawn and the mechanisms of their beaks -- yes, they have beaks, much like parrots -- are but a fraction of the knowledge scientists hope to gain by studying the mollusks, he said. And then there is the nagging question of their unexpected appearance onshore.

Hochberg, like other scientists in the state, has relied on squid samples from Orange County for research and education.

The Ocean Institute in Dana Point has been an important point of data collection in the region, shipping specimens to Hochberg and Stanford University.

This week, the institute dissected a Humboldt squid, or Dosidicus gigas, and prepared samples for shipment.

The specimen -- a 5-foot-long, 15-pound female -- was filled with parasites and sand.

"We still don't know what's killing them," said Linda Blanchard, the Ocean Institute's lab director. "All we have right now are theories."

Blanchard, who has dissected more than a dozen of the creatures, said research on jumbo squid has intensified in California since the first mass stranding began in 1998. Those were attributed to El Nino storms.

"Before the squid were found dead on the beaches in the quantities that they have, we weren't studying them as hard as we are now," she said. This is the first year, however, that the Ocean Institute has shared specimens with the two other research facilities.

Her latest sample collection was spurred by a recent wave of jumbo squid that washed up on beaches between Dana Point and San Clemente.

More than 100 of the dead squid, she said, have been spotted since Sunday.

Scientists speculate that the squid are migrating north from Mexico and south from Peru to Chile to follow their food sources.

Squid normally live and hunt 3,000 feet below the water's surface.

Hochberg said an overactive fishing industry in Mexico may be depleting the Humboldt squid's diet, causing the creatures to migrate north.

Another cause for the stranding, he said, may be related to squid becoming confused by sand churned up by surf.

William Gilly, a biologist at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif., is studying stomach contents to determine whether squid are being poisoned.

Gilly, who has received samples from the Ocean Institute, is trying to determine whether a high concentration of domoic acid, a toxin found in organisms regularly eaten by squid, is causing their demise.

Lou Zeidberg, a squid biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, won't speculate why the creatures are moving away from their usual habitat. But he's using the stranding to research other aspects of the Humboldt squid's behavior.

Among the questions Zeidberg is trying to answer are why the squid change color rapidly and how they manage to stay active in ocean waters where oxygen levels are low.

"Most creatures would be lethargic at these ocean strata, but squid seem to move around quite actively there," he said.

But scientists are not the only ones interested in squid.

Fishermen have been catching the mollusks in Orange County since they first made their appearance here.

"They are catching them for sport," Newport Beach Lifeguard Capt. Eric Bauer said.

Then there are the interested bystanders. Hundreds of onlookers watched as 1,500 jumbo squid washed onto local shores in January and dozens more visited the Ocean Institute to watch the center's first public squid dissection in January.

"We were surprised to see how many people came," said Jonelle Yamasaki, marketing project manager with the institute. "And they've been calling again asking us when the next dissection is scheduled."

The public can view the dissections at the Ocean Institute on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. Information: (949) 496-2274.

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