Friday, March 22, 2013

They're All Alike: The Giant Squid Conundrum


I wasn’t going to post on another paper this week but then two things happened: I saw the video of the first giant squid filmed in its natural habitat (those scientists get so excited!), and I saw the study about giant squid diversity. I posted the first above and now we'll take a look at the second.

The giant squid (Architeuthis spp.) is one of the largest invertebrates and lives in the deep sea. It was first described as Architeuthis dux in 1857 by Danish naturalist Japetus Steenstrub, but since then, as many as 21 nominal species of Architeuthis have been described. The descriptions of this creature have primarily come from remains found washed up on beaches, found floating on the ocean surface, caught by deep-sea trawling activity, or in the stomachs of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). It wasn’t until 2004 that a live specimen was observed in its natural habitat, and earlier this year that the first video footage was published (although not the in-the-natural-habitat version above). It is estimated that female squid reach a total length of 18m (59ft) and males reach slightly smaller sizes. The giant squid is globally distributed, with the exception of polar regions. They feed primarily on fish and smaller cephalopods. Studies of carbon and nitrogen isotope profiles of the upper beaks suggest ontogenetic diet shift earlier in life (smaller to larger prey items), and carbon isotope composition remains constant in food sources indicating that the squid inhabit relatively small, well-defined and productive areas. The predation of adult squid by sperm whales suggests that squid population size must be large enough to support such a large whale population, although this has never been proven.

There are some rather obvious difficulties in studying giant squid using conventional, observational techniques. So other techniques must be utilized. Enter, DNA. Recent advances in DNA sequencing techniques have made it easier, quicker, and more economical to sequence long stretches of DNA. The role of DNA sequencing is becoming more and more important in phylogenetic and population biology studies. It allows you to assess the number of species, examine the amount of genetic variation, and describe population structure.

In a new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers collected 43 Architeuthis soft tissue samples from the carcasses of dead animals across their known range. They extracted DNA samples from the specimens to analyze the mitochondrial genomes (mitogenomes) and levels of nucleotide variation. They generated mitogeome datasets using several strategies, depending on the quality of the DNA in each sample. I’m not going to go into their sequencing methods – if you are a molecular biologist then you already know them, and if you aren’t then I’ll just bore you. To look at the population level of the genetic variance, they wanted to compare their samples with the fossil record of coleoid cephalopods. This is challenging considering the extremely limited fossil record for these organisms. So they used four different mutation rates to tentatively estimate a time of expansion and upper and lower bounds for the time of divergence of Achiteuthis from other squid families.

They were able to complete 37 complete and 6 partial mitogenome sequences. Remember up at the top of the post where I said “21 nominal species of Architeuthis have been described?” One pretty strong conclusion of this study is that there is only one species of Architeuthis that exists, namely Architeuthis dux (Steenstrub, 1857). The researchers found the haplotype diversity of these giant squid to be high at the mitogenome level, but the level of nucleotide diversity in these sequences was found to be extremely low, with only 181 segregating sites of a 20,331 base pair long sequence. Only the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) has a similarly low diversity, which is the result of a recent bottleneck. This diversity for giant squid is much lower than is seen in other squid, 44 times lower than Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) and 7 times lower than the recently restricted population of oval squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana). The high haplotype to low nucleotide diversity relationship is interesting because it shows that out of a very diverse phyla of animals, the giant squid is the odd one out. Looking at the species across its range, there was no evidence of any phylogeographic structure, which is odd considering the global distribution.

So how do you explain the low genetic diversity in comparison to the global distribution (and potentially large population size)? The authors hypothesize that it could be a low rate of mitochondrial DNA evolution, something that has been observed in other marine organisms. But a low mutation rate does not explain why mitogenome duplications maintain near 100 percent identity. The authors suggest that “perhaps the duplicated sequences form stable secondary structures, which are somehow selectively beneficial, thereby causing mutations to be under negative selection,” which would lead to “a decreased rate of divergence in the duplicated regions relative to the rest of the genome, which does not appear to be the case.” Alternatively, it could be a recent selective sweep such as a bottleneck. Bottlenecks are events that greatly reduce the size of a population, usually resulting in a large reduction in the genetic diversity of that group. If this bottleneck were followed by an expansion in the number of individuals in that population then you would see that low diversity spread amongst a large population. Modeling and analysis of data support the latter hypothesis over the former.

Unfortunately, genetic data alone can’t provide an answer as to why this might have happened. Whatever event it was, climatic or biological, it would have had to been wide ranging enough to affect a global population. Perhaps it was a sudden inflation of a population that was historically smaller. It is known that cephalopods tend to be subdominant predators, and as such, are affected by the changes in population of predators and competitors. If this small size was due to restraints on predators and/or competition and that restraint were released then you would expect such an inflation in squid numbers. Considering the effect of industrialized whaling in the 1700s to late 1800s, this is a likely explanation, but still too recent to explain it entirely. This change in predators and/or competitors could have been the result of climatic effects such as the last ice age changing. Such changes could have altered the abundance and distribution of competitors such as predatory fish. Or perhaps, rather than a bottleneck, A. dux existed historically as a single, small, geographically isolated population that then expanded globally. This expansion would have had to been in a non-ordered fashion with either nomadic adults or dispersing juveniles and small pelagic paralarvae capable of using currents to travel long distances. But if they can disperse really far then why would they have been restricted historically? The authors hypothesize that a global population existed for a considerable time, and that an average of just one individual exchanged between two populations per generation will be enough to prevent genetic differentiation between them. They believe that the wide ranging dispersal of paralarvae and juveniles on the currents of the upper layers of the oceans could achieve this. These young life stages float along with the currents feeding on zooplankton and such until they reach a sufficiently large size, after which they descend to the closest nutrient-rich deep habitat where they remain until maturation.

I think that’s a pretty good explanation. What about you?


ResearchBlogging.orgWinkelmann, I., Campos, P., Strugnell, J., Cherel, Y., Smith, P., Kubodera, T., Allcock, L., Kampmann, M., Schroeder, H., Guerra, A., Norman, M., Finn, J., Ingrao, D., Clarke, M., & Gilbert, M. (2013). Mitochondrial genome diversity and population structure of the giant squid Architeuthis: genetics sheds new light on one of the most enigmatic marine species Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280 (1759), 20130273-20130273 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.0273


ScienceNOW article: "Giant Squid Worldwide Are One Species"
ScienceDump: "The search for the giant squid"
Vido via Nature's: "Giant squid filmed in its natural environment"
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