Once, while boating off the coast of Jamaica in 2001, marine biologist Silvia Maciá and her husband caught a glimpse of an oddly familiar creature leaping from the waves, soaring with ease over the surface of the ocean. As the animal propelled itself for some 30 feet, Maciá realized she was witnessing the most unusual sight -- a flying squid. So intrigued by what she saw that day, Maciá would go on to co-author a paper examining similar observations, though essential photographic evidence of the incredible phenomenon remained elusive. That is, until now. Maciá's study, featured in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Molluscan Studies, found that the gliding behavior of her squid wasn't entirely uncommon, noting around six species known to leap from the water -- occasionally winding up on the decks of boats. But from she witnessed that day near Jamaica, squids weren't just exiting the water aimlessly. Rather, they appeared to be flying.
"From our observations it seemed like squid engaged in behaviors to prolong their flight," she said. "One of our co-authors saw them actually flapping their fins. Some people have seen them jetting water while in flight. We felt that 'flight' is more appropriate because it implies something active."
But unfortunately such eyewitness accounts were all that the scientific community had to go on. Soon, however, that would change.
According to Ferris Jabr, who wrote of the mystery surrounding flying squid in a piece for Scientific American, undeniable proof of the cephalopod's airborne antics surfaced just recently. From the deck of a cruise ship along the coast of Brazil, a retiree named Bob Hulse snapped some high-resolution photographs of something unusual leaping from the sea: what appears to be dozens of squid propelling themselves through the air -- quite possibly the first time the impressive display has been caught on film.
Perhaps as puzzled as anyone by what he saw, Hulse sent his photographs to the University of Hawaii. Soon, they ended up in the hands of Ron O'Dor, a scientist from the Census of Marine Life. It turns out, the pictures offered up some valuable clues about this poorly understood behavior.
Hulse was shooting with burst mode on his camera, so I know exactly what the interval is between the frames and I can calculate velocity of squid flying through the air. We now think there are dozens of species that do it. Squid are used to gliding in the water, so the same physiology probably allows them to maneuver and glide through the air. When you look at some of the pictures, it seems they are more or less using their fins as wings, and they are curling their arms in [a] shape that could easily be some kind of lifting surface.
From what has been gathered through the small body of evidence, these species of squid capable of 'flying' use a kind of jet propulsion to project themselves out of the water, whereupon they extend their fins to guide the trajectory and create lift. Biologists theorize that the behavior helps squid evade predators as it allows them to travel at higher rates of speed than they can beneath the waves. And despite the recent unveiling of photographs that prove it, these impressive squid flights probably occur all the time.
While soft, squishy flesh and the absence of a backbone aren't characteristics typically associated with the ability to fly, evidently squids are fearless when it comes to defying expectations -- and at least for a few brief moments, the bonds of gravity.