Monday, 24 December 2007

I Sea.

The Giant Squid (genus Architeuthis) has been photographed alive in the wild only once (2004) and taken on video alive only once (2006), on both occasions by a Japanese expedition. Giant Squid are the stuff of countless maritime legends, but their existence has been scientifically confirmed only for a couple of centuries (in 1888 to be precise), and attempts to study them have been severely limited by their propensity to die as soon as they are captured. Most of the specimen studied are those that wash up on beaches and are thus in very bad shape. It was once thought that giant squid were primarily delicate drifters which just ate whatever happened to pass by. However, the photographs taken by the Japanese team (with the help of a baited hook) show much more robust and belligerent predatory behaviour.

To me, this raises some interesting issues. In any ecosystem predators tend to be more intelligent and capable of adaption than other animals. Surely, the fact that the Giant Squid is a predator (of a fairly aggressive sort too) means it might have a brain capacity greater than once thought. My speculation is of course, fueled by the fact that they have large and (even in death) disconcertingly conscious looking eyes, and their bodies look very much like the elongated shapes of super intelligent aliens one so often sees in charming sci-fi magazines (which seem to primarily come out of America. A population that has supported science fiction for 70 years cant be all bad !) and thus the whole effect begs the question, what sort of intelligence do Giant Squid possess ?

And it turns out that the brain of the squid is very large and complex and it has a very highly developed nervous system. But what really intrigues me, is that they might posses that faculty to which might be attributed all of human progress - curiosity. Again and again through history sailors have reported squid checking their ships out, even attacking them, far outside their zone of comfort which is deep cold waters. In fact, coming to the surface leaves them very vulnerable to attack by sperm whales (who the squid can only beat by preventing them from coming to the surface to breathe). But squid, more than any other deep sea creature (save the sharks perhaps, who will attack anything that moves) seem to have a fascination for human craft. The encounters of giant squid and human vessels have been well documented in recent years, and even if one discounts the legends (though they were right about the existence of the giant squid after all) there is surely a case to investigate further the cognitive capabilities of the giant squid. Furthermore, if we can be offended by the killing of whales (and everyone here in europe seems to be absolutely outraged by japan killing whales) then surely surely, we ought to extend the same concern to a creature who is certainly a worthy adversary to the whale, and might be just as intelligent. I would love to know the results of any tests that might be conducted on Giant squid in the wild in the future, and their response to various stimuli.

Something in their eyes tells me they're smarter than we think :-) Wikipedia, Youtube and Google yeild some interesting results on them Squid. and the Giant Squid is not the end..apparently there is something called "Colossal Squid" ! :-) I love the deep seas almost as much as space and they are so much more accessible and plausible too !

Surely one of the most fascinating things to explore in the deep sea are the extremophilic lifeforms that live there (and they have been caught on film in a visually stunning but otherwise mediocre documentary. What a waste ! the possibilities for that documentary were immense), under incredible pressures and near hydrothermal vents with superboiled water that cant evaporate due to the pressure. They prove that complex life forms can arise even in areas devoid of sunlight, drawing their energy from deep sea vents that spew sulphur and other compounds that are harvested by sulphur eating bacteria (which are also fairly common near volcanic vents) as well as other larger lifeforms and they fuel a food chain based on sulphur instead of oxygen. A whole new biology which has evolved independently of the rest of the world. And the volcanic vents are many times widely seperated making biological exchange between them impossible, so there might be (and probably are) many independently evolving ecosystems (planets for all practical purposes) under the sea ! When a vent shuts down (as must happen every once in a while) so does one entire ecosystem around it. The sea floor must be littered with them. Arthur C. Clarke envisioned this kind of life on Europa (I dont know if he was the first one) and speculated as to the evolution of intelligence in such circumstances. Why not ? It is a challenging and constantly evolving environment. But of course, any given vent might not last long enough for intelligence to evolve (but then again, who is to give Nature a time limit ?) and it has been speculated that Sulphur based metabolism is not efficient enough to sustain intelligent brains (but maybe our brains are energy inefficient, spoilt by the abundance of oxygen). It is certainly possible.

One does not even need to go deep into the sea to find extremophiles and species evolving seperately from our ecosystem. They can be found in caves, and the way troglobites have evolved, very obviously from terrestrial creatures that went into the caves and stayed there, and how different they now are, is surely a brilliant and dramatically clear illustration of evolution at work ! and america has some of the most remarkable caves. Take the evangelicals to the caves I say, and maybe they will see the light. And their world view is as backward as cavemen anyway. (okay okay, sorry, but I could not resist that) In the deep caves too one sees sulphur eating bacteria and a food chain that has them at its base, though its not as dramatic as the sea based ones. Here too, one sees different species in every cave ! thats evolution.

All this of course, goes some way to reassuring us of the tenacity of the phenomenon we call life, and increases our hopes of finding it somewhere nearby. And if some signs of tool making and intelligence - however rudimentary - were to be found somewhere deep in the sea, it would change the way we look at ourselves, and remind us of our transience. We will be lucky if someone finds the shells of what we once considered our achievements and wonders if they are signs of intelligence.

1 comment:

templar said...

with steadfast gaze God looks upon himself, and smiles...