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These squids can fly... no, really - Robert Siddall

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In 1947, explorers noticed a strange phenomenon while crossing the Pacific Ocean. Somehow, small squid known to live deep beneath the waves kept appearing on the roof of their boat. The crew was mystified— until they saw the squids soaring above the sea for roughly 50 meters. How and why do these marine creatures take to the sky? Robert Siddall explores the high-flying capabilities of cephalopods.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Robert Siddall
  • Director Matt Reynolds
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more
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Why did it take us so long to find out about these fantastic creatures? We may simply have not been looking closely enough – the ocean is vast, and human boats tend to be found close to shore, whereas flying squid species happily roam the ‘pelagic zone’ of the ocean. It’s the earth’s largest habitat at 1.4 billion cubic kilometers, and we’ve only explored 19% of it. Squid also tend prefer the dark (cephalopods have excellent eyes), so they swim deeper during the day and may be doing most of their flying at night, out of sight of birds and cameras.

Not only do squid have excellent vision, but they are also able to sense light with their skin, which helps them to create spectacular displays of color. The largest species of squid that has been observed jumping out of the water was a meter-long Humboldt squid. These animals can communicate with each other with their skin, which may help them hunt cooperatively in the dark. Reading about Humboldt squid’s intelligent hunting makes it easy to see where H. G. Wells got the idea for his short story ‘The Sea Raiders’, about a man-eating school of squid.

Squid have occupied the imaginations of storytellers for centuries and perhaps all the tales of kraken made us doubt that squid could fly. The Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder described flying squid in the year 77 CE, although his claim that squid “fly out of the water in such numbers as to sink a vessel” strains credibility.

The squid’s jet propulsion system is uniquely suited to leaping out of the water. The jet of water produces thrust in the same way that an orbital rocket does – by rapidly ejecting mass. This is unlike a bird’s wing or a fish’s tail, both of which push against the surrounding fluid. Importantly, this means that the squid gets the same thrust in the air as it does in the water, and a jet is great for a seamless transition between water and air. For this reason some researchers are putting water jets on small aerial-aquatic robots, although right now these robots need explosions to match flying squid’s mantle muscle.

Squid aren’t the only animal with a surprising aeronautical side. Flying snakes undulate side to side to keep themselves stable in the air. Spiders spin webs and ‘balloon’ into the air. There’s even ‘aeroplankton’ – the bacteria and fungi that inhabit our atmosphere.

We still know very little about flying squid, but to find answers, we need more observations of squid in the wild. We may not have to wait too long. Cephalopod populations are on the rise, due to the warming oceans and our overfishing of their natural predators. So next time you see something gliding over the waves, look closely, it might be a tiny, tentacled rocket.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Robert Siddall
  • Director Matt Reynolds
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more