6 OCTOBER 2017 • VOL 358 ISSUE 6359 53 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
As a squid biologist, I have always been a huge fan of living cephalopods, but heir shelled ancestors never piqued my interest before I picked up Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire. Thanks, in part, to her unbridled enthusiasm,
by the end of the book, I found
myself actively rooting for animals that I had previously only
thought about as fossils.
Early cephalopods used horn-shaped chambered shells to control their buoyancy, allowing
them to bob and float above the
seafloor. The resulting mobility
allowed them to evade predators
and capture prey. With an abundant amount of food available
and a lack of competition, cephalopods flourished, growing to
enormous sizes. (Fossils as long as 3. 5 meters
dating from the Ordovician have been discovered in Iowa.)
Cephalopod evolution is a fantastic sub-
ject for lovers of drama: The moment the
protagonist appears to be done for, a narrow
escape ensues. When fishes developed jaws,
cephalopods countered with beaks. When
fishes became faster swimmers, cephalopods
traded their shells for speed and got better at
hiding with dynamic camouflage.
In chapter 4, Staaf delves into the radiations of the now-extinct ammonites, colorfully describing the ornate and elaborate
shells that these organisms left behind. Ammonites were one of the most successful animals of their time, and the diversity of their
fossils is used by paleontologists
to answer questions about how
new species arise.
As one of the most abundant
fossil types discovered by humans, ammonites have taken on
symbolic meaning in various cultures. Legends passed down by
the Blackfeet Indians, for example, refer to these small fossilized
tokens as “buffalo stones.” They
were believed to bring good fortune to those who found them.
Although the title of the book
is hardly inaccurate, Staaf really examines the rise, fall, and current comeback
of the cephalopods, because these adaptable creatures are by no means decreasing
in the oceans today. If anything, they are
doing better than many other organisms,
thanks to their ability to thrive in warming
oceans and the widespread overfishing of
their trophic-level peers.
The book concludes with a who’s who of
modern day cephalopods. From the half-ton
colossal squid to the 7-centimeter dwarf
cuttlefish, cephalopods live in nearly every
corner of the ocean and represent a wide
array of lifestyles.
Despite the monstrous size of some
squid and the fearsome legends of the gi-
ant kraken, few human deaths have been
recorded from cephalopods. In fact, accord-
ing to Staaf, every recorded fatality from
a cephalopod can be traced back to the
candy-colored, golf ball–sized blue-ringed
octopus, whose venom contains a powerful
tetrodotoxin—the same paralytic chemical
that permeates the puffer fish (not exactly
the vicious Cthulhu you might imagine).
Staaf’s enthusiastic approach to cepha-
lopods should come as no surprise: She
trained in the laboratory of William Gilly at
Hopkins Marine Station, where squid prints
adorn every wall and you can’t go 5 feet
without a papier-mâché tentacle or fin dan-
gling above your head. It is a treat to come
across a writer with such specialized train-
ing who is able to turn esoteric knowledge
into a page-turning read for all audiences.
Her playful tone made me laugh out loud
several times—for example, when she described the scientists responsible for piecing together cephalopod histories from rock
fragments and fossils. “[W]hat are these
people doing? Just coming up with crazy
ideas all the time?” asks an exasperated pa-leontologist at one point, throwing scientific
shade at those who speculate that enormous
unshelled cephalods once roamed the ocean,
feasting on 50-foot ichthyosaurs. Elsewhere,
another researcher bemoans his own graduate school experiments as “one of the most
atrocious things” he’s ever done.
In these scenes, Staaf captures what is
rarely seen outside the ivory tower: scientists talking among themselves with a touch
of irreverence. Researchers everywhere will
surely relate. j
Survival of the spineless
Fossils aren’t your forte? A charming tale of cephalopod
evolution may change your mind
By Sarah J. McAnulty
The reviewer is at the Department of Molecular and Cell
Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, USA.
The Rise and Fall of
ForeEdge, 2017. 253 pp.
Despite their small size,
blue-ringed octopuses pack
a dangerous punch, having
evolved a venom that contains
a deadly neurotoxin.
BOOKS et al.