Speaking Through Light

The humboldt squid communicates using different patterns of flashing light. Its whole body illuminates as it carries on a conversation with its neighbor. Hannah Rosen, a graduate student working in the Gilly Lab at Hopkins Marine Station (HMS), thinks this is pretty darn cool. She spends her days fitting these squids with specialized swimsuits and video cameras to record their every move.



Growing up in the rural suburbs of the northeast, Rosen’s childhood was centered on the adventures that waited just outside her front door. She spent years exploring the forests that lined her street, searching under rocks and over stumps for animals to entertain her youthful curiosity. From an early age, Rosen knew she wanted to work with animals, and as she grew, she became more interested in how different organisms think in comparison to each other.

Rosen’s passion continued at Bucknell University, where she majored in Animal Behavior. Rosen was initially drawn to the octopus because of its unique cognitive abilities, but she soon came to appreciate the often overlooked squid. Squid, as opposed to octopus or cuttlefish, lacked research because of the level of difficulty in studying them in the wild. Hannah began reading papers about the creature and wrote to researchers whose work aligned with her own curiosities. Cephalopod behaviour, she decided, was what she wanted to study in graduate school.

Graduate school took Rosen 2,700 miles from the familiar backyard hideaways of Northeast Pennsylvania, to sand beaches that now sneak up to her lab door at the Hopkins Marine Station (HMS) in Monterey Bay, California. In Rosen’s search for a program that would allow her to work on cephalopod research, one name featured prominently: William Gilly. She joined Gilly’s lab as a PhD candidate at Stanford, and began working in conjunction with Gilly on the connections between neuroscience, behavior, and physiology.

Rosen says that she originally was resistant to the idea of studying the physiology behind squid behavior: When I first contacted him, I was just interested in the behavioral aspect of squid and their forms of communication. Gilly mostly does neuroscience, so he pushed me to look at behavior and physiology behind that [communication]”.

As she started working at the lab, however, Rosen began to realize how the physiology of squid and their behavior complemented each other, and how these connections could further her exploration of their communication methods. Rosen and Gilly began to understand the impact of the squid’s environment on its behavior, allowing their research to become more well-rounded.

To study squid communication in their natural environment, the Gilly Lab collaborated with National Geographic to capture videos of Humboldt Squid interacting with each other at great depths. A year before Rosen joined the lab,  Gilly Lab researchers went to mexico and fitted squid with a swimsuit-engineered camera to observe their behavior. National Geographic helped develop minimally invasive recording methods that allowed the researchers to reduce bias introduced by human-squid interaction. Now, Rosen and the lab are hoping to recreate the data from the Mexico trip during an upcoming trip to Peru. During this expedition, the team will try new techniques, such as infrared lighting, in an attempt to minimize outside factors.

Rosen is particularly excited for this trip, after having worked with the data collected earlier. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve watched this video, over and over again, looking into the world of these animals. It’s thrilling,” Rosen said, referring to the data video from the Mexico trip. Taken in black and white, the video could easily be confused with an action-packed alien thriller; it’s almost hard to believe we’re looking into the deep blue below us, and not the never-ending black above us.

Rosen published her study entitled “Chromogenic behaviors of the Humboldt Squid” in the Journal of Experimental Biology in January of 2015. “I feel like a legitimate scientist now; I’m making my way, and I’m really doing this,” Rosen remarked.

With the Pacific Ocean in her backyard, Rosen’s often describes her daily experiences at the Gilly Lab in Monterey as enlightening. Her graduate research has allowed her to travel from the blue sea to the blue screen, and with promising video footage from past trips, she looks forward to more adventures studying squid speech.

by Hanna Payne