The 22nd SpaceX cargo resupply mission is going to be delivered to the International Space Station this month and, among the materials for the various experiments NASA is working on, there will be 128 baby Bobtail Squid that are just the cutest lil’ babies ever.
I mean just look at them! They’ve got polkadots and big eyes and tiny little legs. This may be the cutest way humanity comes to an end.
Oh what? You thought this experiment would simply result in data on the development of animal tissues in space? Well I got news for you buster: Sending cephalopods to space is basically fast-tracking our downfall as the dominant species on this planet.
First, what NASA hopes to discover by sending these darlings into inky blackness of space:
UMAMI examines the effects of spaceflight on the molecular and chemical interactions between beneficial microbes and their animal hosts. Microbes play a significant role in the normal development of animal tissues and in maintaining human health. “Animals, including humans, rely on our microbes to maintain a healthy digestive and immune system,” says UMAMI principal investigator Jamie Foster. “We do not fully understand how spaceflight alters these beneficial interactions. The UMAMI experiment uses a glow-in-the-dark bobtail squid to address these important issues in animal health.”
The bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, is an animal model that is used to study symbiotic relationships between two species. This investigation helps determine whether spaceflight alters the mutually beneficial relationship, which could support development of protective measures and mitigation to preserve astronaut health on long-duration space missions. The work also could lead to a better understanding of the complex interactions between animals and beneficial microbes, including new and novel pathways that microbes use to communicate with animal tissues. Such knowledge could help identify ways to protect and enhance these relationships for better human health and well-being on Earth as well.
Sure it seems like a human-centric experiment, but octopi, squid and other cephalopods like the cuttlefish have scary intelligence that pre-dates our own by millions of years. They’re only held back from dominating this planet by their need to be in the ocean. Don’t take my word for it, the Guardian spoke to Harvard professor Peter Godfrey-Smith about the intense intelligence of these creatures:
...But to imagine cephalopods’ experience of the world as some iteration of our own may sell them short, given the many millions of years of separation between us – nearly twice as many as with humans and any other vertebrate (mammal, bird or fish).
“I think it’s a mistake to look for a single, definitive thing,” says Godfrey-Smith. “Octopuses are pretty good at sophisticated kinds of learning, but how good it’s hard to say, in part because they’re so hard to experiment on. You get a small amount of animals in the lab and some of them refuse to do anything you want them to do – they’re just too unruly.”
He sees that curiosity and opportunism – their “mischief and craft”, as a Roman natural historian put it in the third century AD – as characteristic of octopus intelligence.
Their great escapes from captivity, too, reflect an awareness of their special circumstances and their ability to adapt to them. A 2010 experiment confirmed anecdotal reports that cephalopods are able to recognise – and like or dislike – individual humans, even those that are dressed identically.
It is no stretch to say they have personalities. But the inconsistencies of their behaviour, combined with their apparent intelligence, presents an obvious trap of anthropomorphism. It’s “tempting”, admits Godfrey-Smith, to attribute their many enigmas to “some clever, human-like explanation”.
So they’re smart — smarter than we can grasp — rebellious and they are frighteningly clever at escaping. Not only that, putting them in space gives the squids a level playing field with humans for the first time, as both humans and squid are not meant to be up there. Squid, however, are made to float through featureless space so they do have an advantage. Houston is about to have a big problem on its hands once these little tikes get large enough to rebel. Today the ISS, tomorrow, the world?
I, for one, welcome our new cephalopod overlords.