By leaking light, squid hides in plain sight

Inefficiency in bioluminescent cells may let sea creature mask itself


ALMOST INVISIBLE SQUID  The big eyes of a nearly transparent squid are camouflaged with bioluminescence (Galiteuthis phyllura shown).

© 2009 MBARI   

A sloppy light system may be just what a squid needs to hide from predators. Bioluminescent cells in some glass squid work in a surprisingly inefficient way — leaking a lot of light rather than fully channeling it, a new study suggests.

Glass squid have largely transparent bodies, helpful for inconspicuous swimming in deep open water. Marine predators often scan the waters above them for the telltale silhouettes of prey blocking sunlight, but there’s little to betray a glass squid — except for a few notable features such as the shadow-making eyes on its head.

Underneath those eyes, squid in the genus Galiteuthis grow silvery patches of cells that act as undersurface bioluminescence, a camouflage technique that has evolved in various marine creatures, making their shadows less conspicuous to hunters below.

Biophysicist Alison Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia had hypothesized that the cells, called photophores, act like microscopic cables that channel the bioluminescent glow of the squid down or out in a specific direction. The skinny, cablelike cells are surrounded by thin, protein-dense layers that create a silver tube that reminds Sweeney of Saran Wrap. But in the first detailed look at these structures, Sweeney and Pennsylvania colleague Amanda Holt found that the channels performed poorly, letting most of the light leak away sideways. That efficiency, it turns out, could be useful, Sweeney and Holt report June 8 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

BACK CHANNELS Five types of photophore cells (cross sections shown) plus a mixed cluster can produce different light effects as they leak bioluminescent light. A.L. Holt and A.M. Sweeney/J. R. Soc. Interface 2016

“We always expect that the most ‘perfect’ or efficient mechanism will be the pinnacle of evolution, but this study shows that there are many ways to solve challenges imposed by the environment,” says marine biologist Steven Haddock of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Inefficiency might sound like an improbable scenario for success. But, says visual ecologist Justin Marshall of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, “I believe it.”

Other researchers had discussed the idea that certain sea creatures show a great deal of subtlety in disguising their silhouettes, but Sweeney knew of no other study trying to figure out how supposed cables work.

It turns out that the squid structures were “really bad at being fiber-optic cables,” Sweeney says. The cells are about 50 micrometers long, longish for a cell but short for a cable. And the cells couldn’t guide light even over that short distance without losing much of it. Looking at the cross sections of the photophores under a microscope showed big, uneven gaps in the layers. When she first recognized this, she expected to write “a boring paper that’s, ‘Gee, squid cells kind of sort of guide light, but not really.’”

Then came the “of course” moment for Sweeney and her puzzling measurements. “The lesson that keeps coming back to us,” she says, “is that these things are meaningless until you consider the habitat.” After calculating the light environment where wild squid swim, the researchers realized that the overall effect of the leaking tubes created a plausible approximation for the twilightlike haze in which the squid live. A glowing blur might actually make the eyes less conspicuous to predator approaching from a variety of angles.

Irregularities in the sheathing and shapes of the leaky cables might even make the living cables more remarkable, Sweeney speculates. Dividing them into five rough types, the researchers investigated the kinds of light effects each produced and matched those effects with ocean conditions at two locations off Hawaii. If squid can pick which cable doodads to use and when, the animals could improve the match between their under-eye shine and conditions in the ocean.

Other squid with opaque skin flicker, darken and quick-change their tiny color-making structures, she points out. So, the suggestion that eye-glow structures might change, too, “is not crazy,” Sweeney says.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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