The sexual life of the SoCal squid.

Women writing about politics, etc.
Feb. 13 2009 6:21 PM

Motion in the Ocean

The six secrets of squid sex.

Ah, February, that special time of the year when love is in the air and the heart turns toward romance. Or, in the case of the Southern California population of the market squid, that special time of year when giant underwater orgies are followed by immediate death. Never mind the stress of Valentine's Day gift shopping—what about the stress of fitting in the 20-tentacle tango before your inevitable demise?

The market squid (scientific name: Loligo opalescens) is a foot-long invertebrate that lives off the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska. Market squid are the fast food of the sea, eaten by everything from sea lions to salmon. To make sure they survive long enough to reproduce, the squids spend their days hiding next to the seafloor, emerging only at night to hunt crustaceans and anchovies. But when it's time for the spring mating season, they throw caution to the wind. Starting in February, hundreds to hundreds of thousands of squids gather on sandy areas off the Southern California coast for star-crossed romance.

During mating, the male's sperm-delivery tentacle grabs a package of sperm, called a spermatophore, from under his mantle, the hatlike covering over the pointed end of the squid. He slips his tentacle under the female's mantle and deposits the spermatophore next to her oviduct. When she lays the eggs, they brush by the spermatophore and are fertilized. Females also have a special sperm-storage organ next to their mouths called a seminal receptacle. If they mate before official spawning season, they can store the extra sperm in their seminal receptacle until it's needed.

Since the demise of other fish stocks, knowing the particulars of squid sex is more important than ever before. West Coast fishermen now depend on catching vast numbers of squid, primarily for export to Asia. In 2005, more than 121 million pounds of market squid were landed in California alone—and almost every single one of those squids was caught in the middle of mating. So an entire $40 million industry depends on making sure that enough squids have a chance to reproduce before being caught.

In honor of Valentine's Day and squid orgy time, here's some squid-oriented sex advice. Squids that follow these six principles will perish in a pleasant afterglow, knowing they've passed their genes on to thousands of adorable baby squids. Squids that fail—well, being an evolutionary dead end is a far worse fate than buying your sweetie the wrong box of chocolates.

1. Avoid mood lighting.
Squids are rather predictable exhibitionists. They have big group orgies in the same spot on the coast at the same time every year. The threat of getting caught might be part of the thrill, but successful spawners don't take needless risks. There's not much the squids can do about the dolphins, sharks, and fish lining up to eat them in flagrante, but swimming up toward the bright, shiny lights at the surface doesn't end well. Most of the squid in the United States is caught while making the beast with two beaks—the fishermen lure mating pairs up to the surface with bright light, then scoop them up in nets. Smart squids avoid getting made into calamari by spawning safely at the bottom.

2. Know your body type.
Size matters. But so does the motion in the ocean. Since squid orgies are usually something of a free-for-all, there's no time to waste. Squid are either guard males (ready to commit to a single lady, at least for a couple of hours) or sneaker males (players with a lot of love to give—in 10 seconds or less). Guard males fight their way in, grab the first free female squid they see, and make sweet love in the "male parallel" position—turning upside-down and grabbing the female from underneath. Males of more Napoleonic proportions are sneaker males. Speed is of the essence—the only way they're going to see some action is by drive-by sperming.

3. Guard males: Trade romance for constant vigilance.
Spawning season is not the time to get wrapped up in the moment. It's not enough just to slide spermatophores under her mantle. Guard males have to fight off other males—while hanging on to their lady like a rodeo rider. To scare off the competition (and impress their mate), guard males use their color-changing abilities to turn their tentacles bright cherry red.

Want to see how the big boys do it? Click here to see this strapping squid fight off a sneaker male (0:03 and 0:25) and pass a spermatophore to his mate (0:15). But she's just not that into him, and her whole body turns angry red before kicking him out.  

4. Sneaker males: Go for speed over style.
Squids on the smaller side can't hang on to their own females, so they go for speed. They've got two windows of opportunity—the threesome and the egg drop. For the threesome, they dart in while the guard male and the female are in the act, slip a spermatophore under her mantle, and jet away as fast as they can. For the egg drop, they wait until the female is laying her long, oval egg capsules, and dart in to slip some spermatophores into her seminal receptacle in hopes that she'll decide to use it to fertilize some of her eggs. Though neither of these strategies is as good as being one of the muscle boys—at best, sneaker males fertilize 9 percent of the eggs—half a spawn is better than none.  

Check out some threesome action here. This sneaker male hangs on for an epic 10-second ride. Those white tubes on the bottom are the end goal of all the squid debauchery—fertilized egg capsules. 

5. Don't forget to cuddle.
Not only is it rude to fall asleep after sex, it's potentially dire. Even if a guard male has successfully hung on to his lady, he can be cuckolded by a sneaker male at the last moment. So guard males spoon their mates during the hourslong process of laying an egg capsule and pumping it full of embryos. Once she's glued the egg capsule to the sand, the guard males can roll over and swim away in search of their next paramour.

6. Go gently into that good night.
Après sex, all the squids are dead. Sure, they might have the energy for one or two more rounds, but they're not eating and perish from exhaustion after a few weeks. Most cephalopods—squid, octopus, and cuttlefish—live fast and die young after just one season of righteous action. But it's the natural way of things, and in about a month, millions of minuscule squid will hatch out the egg capsules. They'll go about their short lives, hunting and hiding and ultimately expiring during next year's Valentine's Day orgy.

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