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Science & Environment

Deep Sea Squid May Communicate Through Glowing Pigmentation, Researchers Find

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you feel like you need an escape, we're here for you. Let's go to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. That is where squid as large as a person live in almost complete darkness. Scientists have found they have a complex way of communicating with glowing patterns on their skins. NPR's Lauren Sommer explains.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Humboldt squid have earned their nickname, which is red devil, according to Stanford University graduate student Ben Burford.

BEN BURFORD: They're aggressive, voracious. They have, like, a pretty bad rep out there, you know? And they're exceptionally cannibalistic.

SOMMER: Burford starts to explain but, like a lot of people, is working at home, and there's a quick interruption.

BURFORD: All right. This rabbit is being insane. Hang on. (Groaning).

SOMMER: That's his pet rabbit Peaches.

BURFORD: We'll let her out of her cage (laughter).

SOMMER: Anyway, the 6-foot red squid gather to feed in big groups in the Pacific Ocean.

BURFORD: When you watch them, it looks like a frenzy. But if you pay close attention, they're not touching each other. They're not bumping into each other.

SOMMER: Burford wondered how they do it. Squid can communicate by changing the color of their skin, making all sorts of patterns. But these squid live in the dark. So Burford says they seem to have a way to make those patterns visible.

BURFORD: Their body glows.

SOMMER: They make their own light by being bioluminescent. Burford says it probably acts like backlighting for the changing patterns on their skin.

BURFORD: They're essentially making themselves into e-readers.

SOMMER: That's because the squid have certain patterns they only use around other squid. And they seem to reorder those patterns, potentially to mean different things, almost like words in a sentence. He and his colleagues published the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

BURFORD: What blows my mind is there's probably squid talking to each other in the deep ocean. And they're probably sharing all sorts of cool information.

SOMMER: That could change the way scientists think about bioluminescence, says Mike Vecchione, NOAA zoologist at the National Museum of Natural History.

MIKE VECCHIONE: We generally think of deep-sea stuff as having very simple displays because it's a low-light environment.

SOMMER: But because it's such a hard place to study...

VECCHIONE: Most of our planet is deep sea, and we don't know very much about it at all.

SOMMER: So there's probably a lot more out there to find.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.