A Day for Love and Cuttles
There ought to be one day of the year set aside specifically for love. It should be a celebration of all which you hold close to you. How about February 14th as a celebration? It’s a pretty ordinary day otherwise, and a pretty bland date coming in the middle of a late winter month as it does. I think today would be the perfect candidate for a special holiday.
In addition to celebrating the things you love today, why not also focus the day on cuddling—or, perhaps it’s more like cuttling? If you haven’t picked up on my point yet, I’m writing about none other than the cuttlefish. By far my favorite marine cephalopod. And why not? Just take a look at those big puppy-dog eyes and that tentacled smile waiting to embrace you in a kiss.
I thought about all this last February 14th too. On this day last year, I took a long sunset stroll down the white-sand beaches of Australia’s Bribie Island. In the fragrant subtropical air and the warm, salty ocean breeze, I found my love—or at least their remains. Along the beach were washed up several large cuttlebones—the hard remains of these invertebrate animals that give the cuttlefish both its internal structure and its buoyancy control. Like a lover’s distinctive gaze, the cuttlebone is the distinguishing feature of the cuttlefish, separating them from all other classes of cephalopods. But don’t take the name ‘-bone’ literally—the cuttlebone is extremely porous and composed of the mineral aragonite, unlike our own calcium phosphate skeleton. Maybe you’ve even handled a cuttlebone yourself, if you’ve ever fed one to a pet bird or reptile as a good source of crunchy calcium.
Before my long walk on the beach that night, I had a romantic dinner with my cuttlefish love; the cuttlefish showed up for the main course. Worldwide, many people enjoy dinner with a cuttlefish regularly. Especially in coastal areas of Europe and East Asia where the cuttlefish inhabit the waters, cuttlefish appears frequently on the menu. One typical Italian dish, risotto al nero di sepia, marries Arborio rice with cuttlefish ink.
I try to see my love frequently, not exclusively on February 14th. At every aquarium I visit, I instinctively zero in on the cuttlefish exhibits. Watching both their sleek movements and awkward bumbling can make anyone’s day. Cuttlefish can rapidly blend into their surroundings by changing the colors, patterns, and textures of their skin, which helps them both hide from predators and ambush prey. Their camouflage can even form moving patterns along the body, like nature’s organic jumbo-tron television.
Hearts are a rather appropriate metaphor for love, especially for the cuttlefish. With one heart for each gill and another for the rest of the body, cuttlefish max out at three hearts—that’s a lot of love to give. And these bleeding hearts don’t turn red; cuttlefish blood is a distinct blue-green hue due to the copper-containing molecule haemocyanin that transports oxygenated blood rather than the deeply-red colored haemoglobin found in vertebrates.
Gaze deeply into your lover’s eyes as well. Such a graceful W-shaped pupil, so deeply black and yet so alien. Any resemblance to our own eyes is a superficial product of convergent evolution. The cuttlefish can see things in us that we can’t see in ourselves; though their eyes cannot detect color, they can sense the polarization of light. And unlike our own flawed perceptions, these creatures don’t have blind spots.
A love for cuttlefish isn’t complete without cuttlefish love either. In their relationships, cuttlefish are excellent communicators, changing their colors to reflect their moods and intentions. A male cuttlefish can tell if a female cuttlefish is ‘interested’ if she turns the aptly-named ‘precopulatory grey’ pattern. But cuttlefish romance is also full of intrigue and deception. Non-dominant males can change color to pose as a breeding female. They can then sneak into the territory of a larger competitive male and surreptitiously mate with females. Cuttlefish romance sounds like the makings of a terrible aquatic soap opera!
The preferred copulatory position is face-to-face. The male cuttlefish will grab ahold of the female with his tentacles, and then use his extra pair of tentacles to insert his sperm sacs into an opening near the female’s mouth. The male holds onto this lovers’ embrace until the female lays her eggs a few hours later.
It’s tough for a male cuttlefish to find love out there. Typical cuttlefish populations have up to 5 times as many males as there are females. The playing field is jam-packed. If a male loses his female, there just as well might not be more fish in the sea (actually, cuttlefish aren’t fish but are mollusks. They are more closely related to snails than vertebrate fishes). If all chances of love fail nevertheless, a cuttlefish can still try their luck with brains. These animals have one of the largest brain-to-body size ratios in the animal kingdom.
Finally, any romantic holiday should include a fancy dinner. Seafood is a wonderful idea. The cuttlefish love to dine on shrimp, crabs, and fish. Their table manners could use work, though. They grab ahold of their prey by sneaking out their two feeding tentacles then snatching their prey at rapid speed, shocking their victim in the sneak attack. The hapless prey is then brought into the folds of the cuttlefish’s tentacled mouth, where it is paralyzed into submission with a toxic venom. Though they may gnaw on their entire meal whole, at least they don’t have bad enough manners to chew with their mouths open.