I participated in an alien autopsy a few days ago. It was a smelly, gooey affair. I think my hands still smell like briny fish guts. The many-tentacled alien I saw sliced open wasn’t from outer space, but from a place almost as mysterious: the ocean. Jacob and I, along with some of our fellow Zoology Department geeks, went to watch a public dissection of a giant squid at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. No, it wasn’t a giant giant squid, like the one in 2000 Leagues Under the Sea or whatever, but at seven feet in length, this sucker was big by the usual calamari standards.
A crowd had already formed around the dissecting table when we pushed through the doors of the aquarium-like facility and were greeted by the pungent odor of dead marine life. We jostled our way through soccer moms, old people, and kids to get a close look at the squid. Squids, actually—there were two of them, a big one (Moroteuthis robusta) and a smallish one (Dosidicus gigas). A man in a classic white lab coat was addressing the crowd. He gave us a lecture on some squid natural history as he sliced and diced with his scalpel. What large squid species do out there in their natural habitats is mostly a mystery. They eat stuff and get eaten, often by sperm whales. They mate in big squid orgies. And, unfortunately, fishermen snag them, either intentionally or as by-catch, which is how the two squids we saw met their fate.
Highlights of the dissection for me were the squid beaks, the lens of the smaller squid’s eye, the little toothed suckers of the smaller squid, and the thick, rubbery mantle of the large squid. We all puzzled over some of the gelatinous organs in the big squid. Despite our collective zoological knowledge and the availability of squid anatomy illustrations, we couldn’t figure out if a white, spiral-shaped sack was part of the reproductive system or the digestive system. There were other organs that went unidentified as well. Oh, the enigmatic innards of nature…
My own cephalopod adventures did not end that day with the dissection. The Research Lab also had a live giant pacific octopus (octopus dofleini) on display. Here name was Aida and she was beautiful, with her billowing tentacles and inquisitive black eyes. It was love at first sight. I couldn’t believe my luck when the elderly docent lady said I could reach in the tank and touch the octopus. I pushed up my sleeve and reached in to caress Aida. She was cold and sleek. The sensation of touching the smooth, writhing tentacles was wild, especially when the little suckers adhered to my skin. I fondled Aida and she fondled me, with one tentacle and then two, three, six… she wrapped around my arm and began to boil up out of the water. The docent lady lunged forward and pushed Aida forcefully off of me and back into the tank. The docent told me that the behavior I had just witnessed was aggression and that Aida was preparing to either bite or squirt a jet of water in my face. Aida bite me? Never. She just wanted a kiss.