As someone who really, really likes squids, and has for about five years now, I am constantly amazed how popular they’ve become on the internet. When I first started drawing squids in college in 2007-2009, everyone around me was like ‘Katie, that is kind of weird. Why squid?’ That is a question I’ve gotten maybe hundreds of times: “Why squid?” Usually, I just answered with a simple “I like them” or “I think they’re cool-looking.”
Now they’re ALL OVER the internet, and on tumblr especially. And not exclusively squids, but also their two closest cousins (of the phlyum mollusca and class cephalopod) — octopi and cuttlefish.
But the question still stands, and now that I know I’m not the only one, even more so. Why squid? What is it that makes squid and their cephalopod cousins so fascinating and awesome to so many people?
The thing about squid, octopi, and cuttlefish (and even the humble nautilus) is that, at first glance, for their level of sophistication (unlike flatworms, slugs, etc), they seem like the complete evolutionary opposite of humans and other land-based life. They kind of look like aliens, really. The only similarities they share with mammals is that they have eyes, and a sort of main-body, and reaching-apparatuses (for grabbing stuff).
And their reaching-apparatuses are, of course, the main appeal. The reason for this is that the tentacles and arms of the cephalopod family are probably the most unique form of animal-grabbing-apparatus out of all the animals on this whole dang planet.
Let’s do a rundown.
There’s four-legged animals, and their main deal is they stand on all four legs, so their legs have minimal grabbing-range. Cats, dogs, bears, etc, have to make do with a sort of front-paw swiping system, and they do their main damage by running fast (the advantage of the four legs), and having crazy scary jaws and teeth for nightmare-strong biting.
Elephants got pretty creative by evolving that long trunk, and giraffes got creative by evolving a long neck, but still, kind of limited by just one trunk and one neck each.
Fish and sharks and whales pretty much completely lose this contest, because they’re basically like boats, with just little triangle-shaped fins to help them swim faster, with no grabbing abilities whatsoever. Birds do a a little better grabbing with their bird-feet, but bird-feet seem like more of an afterthought compared to their wings, the main attraction.
Primates, obviously, can do a little better, sitting and even standing, and have a lot more grabbing ability, but they still use their front arms for walking and moving around most of the time.
But humans, of course, totally win the grabbing contest of all the mammals. By a series of crazy mutations, we eventually started, as a species, walking on just two legs, freeing up our arms to do all sorts of fantastic stuff like making weapons and cooking food, inventing fire and the wheel and drawing pictures on cave walls and building houses. All of human civilization exists all because of our arms and their ability to grab stuff better than any other creature in the animal kingdom.
Except cephalopods. While we were becoming better and better than all the other animals on land with our awesome arm-enhanced grabbing abilities, an oddly similar transformation was happening in the deep sea. Squid, octopi and cuttlefish were evolving long, long arms and tentacles, which, in terms of sophistication of design, (if you’ll pardon the obvious pun) blew everything else out of the water.
The evolution of the cephalopods had one major advantage over humans, and that was that, living in the deep sea, they didn’t have to struggle with gravity. Gravity has pull in the ocean, but most objects don’t sink to the bottom because they are supported by the buoyancy of the water. Evolution involves the propagation of mutations that flourish in their environment, and the series of mutations that flourished underwater caused a magnificant end-standard of animals like the squid and the octopus.
Cephalopods and humans still share some of the building blocks of life on Earth, but cephalopods, in many ways, are more physiologically advanced than us. Evolution doesn’t “plan”, and a lot about the human body is awkward. Four-legged animals, in many ways, are more graceful than us. Humans have suffered a myriad of problems since they started standing and walking upright—back trouble, joint trouble, foot trouble and difficult, often fatal childbirth, to name just a few. The benefits of having always-available arm movement came at a lot of physiologically detrimental costs.
But the squid and octopus evolved in an environment that supported their weight. Instead of bones and awkward bending joints, they evolved to be floating, twirling, undulating, twisting things, with long, long, elegant arms that can twist and swirl with the currents, able to gently drift and float or use jets of water to propel themselves forward, able to move in any and every direction.
There’s a reason there’s a whole selection of t-shirts and artwork claiming to welcome our “Squid Overlords”, and there’s a reason that science-fiction authors and illustrators have so often turned to the squid and octopus as inspiration for alien or fantastical giant villainous creatures. Cephalopods are just plain the most sophisticated end-product that evolution has ever produced, and although humans are awkward and pointy and stumbly by comparison, I think that those of us who embrace the beauty of the octopus (and the squid, and the cuttlefish) recognize that we should be proud to share a planet with something so elegant and beautiful.
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