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Biology professor William Gilly pioneers research about Humboldt squid

For Professor of Biology William Gilly, a scientist at the Hopkins Marine Station, having part of his finger bitten off by a Humboldt squid on a mid-ocean research trip was simply an occupational hazard.

Though sometimes dangerous, Gilly’s dedication to his pioneering research about the Humboldt squid has been rewarded with extensive publication and research grants from prominent organizations like National Geographic and the National Science Foundation. In recent years, Gilly and his research partners have attained national recognition for new discoveries about the species, which will likely become an inhabitant of oceanic waters off of Northern California and can reach the size of a human.

Gilly’s discoveries have widespread ecological and economic implications, as Humboldt squid have played an increasingly large role in the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem as the territory that the species inhabits expands.

The squid are unique in that they can adapt to low-temperature, low-oxygen zones by slowing down their movements and metabolic rates, allowing them to survive in areas that are inhospitable to other species.

“As the oxygen levels in the ocean are dropping, this is actually helping the [Humboldt] squid, whereas in the case of most animals, it’s hurting them,” noted Hannah Rosen, a second-year Ph.D. student in Gilly’s lab.

Rosen believes that as the Humboldt squid’s population increases and interacts with a greater degree with other populations, further research on the species will become more necessary.

“We need to know more about them because of the impact on other animals that might be competing with the squid for food or that might feed on the squid,” she said.

Despite the species’ importance, Rosen said that the Humboldt squid has been “very under-researched” thus far. According to Rosen, several factors contribute to the difficulty of researching the species, including the fact that most squid can survive for only a few days in captivity and will often sustain injuries by propelling themselves into the sides of the tanks.

Because of the difficulty of studying the species in captivity, most research is conducted in the field. However, the Humboldt squid’s nocturnal lifestyle complicates efforts to track the species and strains researchers.

“You’re lost at sea and doing months worth of research within a few short weeks,” Rosen said of her experience tracking the squid.

In the future, Gilly hopes to raise funds for a study of the mechanisms behind the squid’s ability to change color from red to white, a function for which the underlying neural processes are “very little known.”

Gilly emphasized the broader context of his research by citing other remarkable experiences at sea, such as witnessing mesopelagic lantern fish — who have light organs below each eye — at night in the Gulf of California.

“I had never seen that before,” Gilly said. “No one on the ship had ever seen that before. I’ve talked to friends of mine in Baja who’ve gone fishing thousands of times, and they’ve said, ‘Oh yeah! I saw that once.’”