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‘They are calling you on the Squid phone’

Earlier this week, and over 2,700 feet underwater by the northern Great Barrier Reef, a remote control vehicle named SuBastian engaged in a look with a burrito. This is what the creature looked like from afar: a toasted cylinder floating eerily upright in the twilight zone of the ocean, like a takeaway from Triton.

Above the waves, in the control room of a Schmidt Ocean Institute research vessel, pilot Jason Rodriguez and co-pilot Kris Ingram sailed SuBastian closer to the unidentified floating object, which sprang and squirmed several times before entering focus. The animal was about as long as a breakfast sausage, with ultra-thin fins and a large searching eye.

“What the hell?” muttered Dhugal Lindsay, sipping her morning coffee in her office at the Japan Marine-Terrestrial Science and Technology Agency, or Jamstec, in Kanagawa. Dr Lindsay, a marine biologist, had zoomed in to tell a YouTube livestream, which previously spotted a 16-tentacle jellyfish and siphonophore Apolemia, a colonial animal that resembles a garland of fairy lights. Dr. Lindsay’s Zoom stream was blurry, and the burrito creature initially seemed a mystery.

The day before, SuBastian had discovered a coral reef higher than the Empire State Building, leaving senior scientists caught up in back-to-back interviews in the other room. For example, Valerie Cornet, a master’s student in marine biology at James Cook University, stepped in to tell the story alongside Dr Lindsay. Just before the creature moved off the screen, Ms Cornet speculated that it could be a squid.

Meanwhile, around 10:30 p.m. in Washington, DC, Mike Vecchione was getting ready for bed. A zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Dr Vecchione had watched SuBastian’s dive, but called it a day when the flow had problems. Suddenly, he recalls, a phone was buzzing with a message from a colleague, biologist Christopher Mah: “Mike Vecchione, they’re calling you on the squid’s phone.

When Dr. Vecchione took a good look at the image, he knew exactly what it was: Spirula spirula, or the ram’s horn squid. Spirula is the only living squid to have a coiled inner shell, which it tucks away under the fleshy flaps of its rear end, according to Jay C. Hunt, a biologist at the University of East Stroudsburg. The squid can also emit a lime green light from a large candle holder, also located on its backside.

Dr Vecchione and other experts were amazed. For centuries, biologists and beach goers had stumbled upon the miniature white Spirula shells washed up on shores around the world. But no one had ever seen the animal living in its natural habitat.

“It was this mysterious animal,” said Rebecca Helm, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, who was one of the enthusiastic scientists. Tweeter about Spirula. “It’s like the pixie-sized version of the giant squid.”

Chong Chen, biologist at Jamstec, said, “This may be the first time that a living animal has been filmed in its natural habitat.”

While Spirula’s sighting may be a scientific first, it didn’t make a strong initial impression on the researchers on board. “We’ve seen bobtail squid and dumbo octopus where we say, ‘Wow, that’s the cutest thing,’” Ms. Cornet said. “This one looked weird and was looking at us with his weird eye.”

Perhaps even more surprising than the creature’s cameo was its odd positioning. Scientists had always assumed that Spirula was swimming with its head pointing down and its bottom filled with gas in the air. When Dr. Vecchione caught live spirulas in trawls and threw them into the cold water on board, the “living squid kind” was still floating in the rump, he says.

This assumption made sense; the squid’s gas chamber shell supported it like a nautilus, after all. But that raised another question. Deeper creatures often point their lanterns downward, disguising their silhouettes from the predators lurking below. Shining green light towards the sky, on the other hand, is useless. “It is neither common nor logical,” said Dr Vecchione.

But the Spirula captured by the camera was clearly with its head held high, suggesting that its downward-facing tealight was most likely being used for counter-illumination after all. “It makes sense,” Dr Vecchione said.

While the mystery of the candle holders can now be solved, a Spirula on the right side appears to have a balance issue, with the squid’s body mass precariously balanced on its floating shell. “When you design an ROV, you don’t put heavy objects on top and floats on the bottom,” said Dr. Lindsay.

Video can provide clarity. Fin wave analysis could shed light on how the squid manages to stay still in the water, Dr Hunt said. “Normally we could see the squid breathing through its funnel, but not in this case,” he says. “It suggests that being perfectly still is this little guy’s main defense.”

All signs point to Spirula, or at least this particular Spirula, to be rather shy. Unlike most freewheeling cephalopods, the squid held its arms together in a cone. This posture allowed the squid to pull its head inside its coat and seal it, like a turtle, Dr Vecchione said. He speculated that this could protect the squid from small predators like amphipods which will “chew anything they can get”.

Towards the end of the video, the Spirula inflates its mantle with water to make one last escape to the depths – remarkably quickly too, for a long potato-shaped creature. Dr Hunt was surprised at how quickly the animal could gush out, considering that a gas-filled shell might not respond well to rapid pressure changes.

But Spirula’s speed didn’t scare Dr Vecchione. “He’s a squid, after all,” he says. “He’s capable of doing Squiddish-like things.”

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