Cephalopods have a lot to offer – tentacles, beaks, and big scary (and perhaps cute) eyeballs. Today, though, let’s look at a part of the cephalopod body that doesn’t get paid so much attention to, especially by us neurobiologist types: the ink.
Most coleoid cephalopods (that is, all the living cephalopods excluding nautiluses and a few deep-water octopuses) produce ink. This ink is composed chiefly of melanin, which is a dark brown pigment that is found throughout the animal kingdom. Humans have used cephalopod ink for a variety of purposes, including writing, drawing, dying, and cooking (the fact that both a dark brown color of ink and a genus of cuttlefish are both named Sepia is not coincidence.) In fact, you can buy tubs of cephalopod ink online.
Cephalopods use their ink for a different purpose, though; it helps them get away from sticky situations. When severely startled, cephalopods will release ink from their ink sac, which is pushed out of their funnel with a jet of water (which usually also jets the cephalopod in the opposite direction away from the perceved danger.) The resulting cloud of ink could serve many functions; it could conceal the escaping cephalopod’s location from the predator, serve as a false target for the predator (who would attack the dark ink instead of pursuing its prey,) frighten the predator, or even trick the predator’s sensory systems into thinking it had already caught something (I’ll explain this last one at the end of the post.)
One neat property of cephalopod ink, though, has nothing to do with how predators perceive it, but rather how cephalopods perceive it.
When one squid in a shoal inks (“inking” being the action of expelling ink into the water) the rest of the shoal can certainly see what has happened and be alerted to the immanent danger that way. In addition to this, though, it has been hypothesized that squid can chemically sense the ink in the water, which would give them another way to keep abreast of squid-predator interactions going on around them.
One study that found evidence for this hypothesis (which is actually a part of a series of studies in this line of research) was done by Gilly and Lucero (1991) at Hopkins Marine Station in California. These investigators restrained squid (loligo opalescens) by attaching their dorsal mantle to a platform with cyanoacrylate glue (the same stuff that Super Glue is made of,) and then used a pipette to place small amounts of various substances onto a chemoreceptive organ located behind the squid’s eye.
They recorded the activity of the squid with a video camera, and everything was done remotely, so that the movement of the experimenter’s would not upset the squid and cause extra escape-like behavior. Escape-like behavior was measured in terms of the pressure inside the squid’s mantle, which was recorded via a tiny pressure transducer inserted inside the squid’s mantle. One of their records is shown here – the spikes in pressure reflect jets of water being expelled from the squid’s mantle, as it presumably attempts to escape from the chemical stimuli that signal some sort of danger in the environment.
They found that pipetting ink from an animal of the same species of the test animal onto the olfactory organ caused jetting. Furthermore, they found that a specific component of squid ink, L-DOPA (which is a precursor of melanin, the main pigment in squid ink) caused jetting just as much as did whole ink. On this basis, the authors concluded that L-DOPA is used as a sort of chemical alarm signal between L. opalescens individuals. (I should note that some of the authors cited in this post write that squid ink is actually a cue, not a signal, as a signal results in an action on the part of the receiver that benefits both the receiver and the sender of the signal. Escape responses by squid in response to the ink of conspecifics do not fit this definition.)
A more recent study by Wood, Pennoyer, and Derby (2008) looked at the responses of Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea) to squid ink preparations. This species of squid has ink that hangs together in a mucous-ey glob in the water, forming what the authors call a “psuedomorph”, or false animal shape that confuses predators.
Each squid was tested by placing a small amount of an ink preparation into its aquarium and videotaping its behavior during and after this event. The authors used a scoring system to determine how defensively each squid behaved during each test, with points on a scale of defensiveness being awarded for behaviors like jetting, specific postures that are used to hide from predators, and certain color changes that are known to signal alarm. A higher score on this measure of defensiveness indicated that the squid was “alarmed” (or something like that) during the test. Below is a video showing on of their tests, produced by New Scientist:
The authors found that S. sepioidea responsed with alarm to fresh squid ink placed in their aquarium. The ink worked to cause alarm responses even after it had been frozen, albeit not as well – the authors noted that it changed in consistency, and dispersed much more quickly. Ink that was placed into an adjacent aquarium (meaning the squid could see it, but could definitely not chemically sense it) worked very well to stimulate escape behavior. This argues that one of the stimuli that this species of squid uses to respond to ink is its appearance. What about chemoreception, though?
The authors produced “melanin-free ink” by centrifuging fresh ink to remove all of the melanin-containing granules in it. They reasoned that this ink was just link the whole ink chemically, except that it did not contain the specific chemical that made it opaque (melanin). They found that the squids did not respond to this ink that they could not see. These results point to the use of vision exclusively in S. sepioidea in responding to other squid’s ink, apparently conclusively.
Frustratingly, they don’t, really. It would be easy enough to chalk this result up to species differences – one species can chemically sense ink, and the other species cannot. These results, however, don’t say enough to make this claim (although there may exist other research that answers this question.)
In a paper by Lucero, Farrington, and Gilly (1994), squid (L. opalescens) ink was analyzed for the presence of L-DOPA and dopamine (they found it, but that’s not the reason I mention it.) They found that, in seawater, L-DOPA and dopamine are rapidly degraded via oxidation reactions, which would certainly dampen any effects they would have on the behavior of squid swimming in that water. They also found that the L-DOPA and dopamine in squid ink did not degrade this rapidly – these preparations behaved as if they were being protected by some sort of antioxidant contained within squid ink. While the authors used ascorbic acid (a small, soluble molecule) to replicate this effect, it’s possible that any anti-oxidant activity in the squid ink is provided by a protein (or another large, centrifuge-seperable molecule.) When Wood et al. prepared their “melanin-free ink”, they may also have removed some component of the ink that is essential for its activity as a chemical signal (for a hypothetical example, a protein that prevents that oxidation of L-DOPA and dopamine in the vicinity of the ink blob.) They may even have done something that eliminated the L-DOPA and dopamine altogether – they provide not chemical analysis of their ink preparations, and so it’s hard to know. The authors acknowledge that this is a shortcoming of their work in their paper, so there’s been no oversight on their part – it just would have been nice if they’d done a bit more in the way of quantifying the chemistry of the preparations they were using. Oh well – it’s something for the next round of studies, I guess.
I mentioned that squid ink might trick predators into “thinking” they had already caught the squid and were eating it, a trick called phagomimicry. This is because squid ink (and the exudates that other molluscs exude under stress) contains, among other things, a full complement of free amino acids – these are chemicals that predators taste when they eat flesh. If a predator gets a mouthful of ink, if they can sense the amino acids that normally tell them that they’re eating flesh, they may behave as if they have already caught and/or eaten their prey, and give up pursuit.
Thanks for reading!
WOOD, J., PENNOYER, K., & DERBY, C. (2008). Ink is a conspecific alarm cue in the Caribbean reef squid, Sepioteuthis sepioidea Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 367 (1), 11-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.jembe.2008.08.004
Lucero, M., Farrington, H., & Gilly, W. (1994). Quantification of l-Dopa and Dopamine in Squid Ink: Implications for Chemoreception Biological Bulletin, 187 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1542165