Bobtail squid and their microscopic friends

I’ve recently gotten into microbiology (I got a book on protozoans, and I’m hooked,) so I decided to try to find something microbiological to write about. Lo and behold, after a few Pubmed searches, I came upon some papers about an bioluminescent bacteria called Vibrio fischeri. Of course, not just any bacteria would do for a blog post – this one is special. It lives inside the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, in two special light organs. There, it finds a nice comfy home, and the squid can use the bacteria’s light-producing ability for countershading, so that it is harder to catch and eat. It is easy to see how this is good for both the squid and the bacteria.

(As a brief aside, the genus Euprymna is among the cutest cephalopod taxa. Go ahead and do a Google image search for the string “euprymna”, if you don’t believe me.)

The squid houses its tiny symbionts in a set of paired organs called the light organs (there’s a nice, straightforward anatomical term for ya!) These organs contain many convoluted cavities lined with epithelial cells in which the bacteria live. They connect to the inside of the mantle cavity (which is actually the outside of the body, as the mantle is open to the seawater through the funnel,) through ducts, so that the inside of the light organ is actually continuous with the squid’s mantle epithelia. Vibrio fischeri infect young squids by making their way through these connecting ducts and colonizing the cavities in their light organs. This process has been the subject of a number of very interesting studies; I’ll come back to this later, though.

At the present moment, let’s forget about the bacteria and consider the light organ from the squid’s perspective. The light organ’s structure was described in 1990 by McFall-Ngai and Montgomery. They found that the organ had a structure that was specialized for the projection of light downwards from the squids body. Specifically, the organ is set up so as to maximize the amount of light that leaves the squids ventral surface (its belly, or underside.) In addition to the cavities for the light producing bacteria to live in, the light organ contains a specialized “reflector” that helps to prevent light from escaping from the top of the organ, and a clear lens beneath the light organs to allow light to exit the squid’s body from the bottom. These structures are closely associated with the animal’s ink sac, which it has muscular control of, and so the shape of the reflector and lens can be changed by the action of the squids muscles. This allows the squid to adjust the characteristics of the light that leaves its light organ – specifically, it allows the squid to control how much light leaves the light organ. This is very important, as it’s what makes the light organ useful.

This image shows the light organs of the Hawaian bobtail squid. They are the pair of white and black organs below the eyes. From McFall-Ngai and Montgomery, 1990.

This is a cross section of the light organ. For orientation, imagine that the squid in the above photograph was lying on a table, and we cut it in half horizontally through the light organ, so that one half had the head and tentacles and the other half had the tip of the mantle. From McFall-Ngai and Montgomery, 1990.

How do we know what the light organs are used for, though? They look a lot like they would be used for countershading – that is, the lightening of an animals downward-facing side that prevents predators below them from seeing their silhouette against the light from the surface. Suggestive anatomy is not enough to make a firm conclusion about their function, though – we have to show that the light organs actually function to provide counter-shading.

Let’s fast-forward to 2004, where after stepping out of our Scienterrific Time-Travel Machine (TM) we will crack open the current issue of the journal “Marine Biology” to find an article by Jones and Nishiguchi that purports to show that the bobtail squid really does use its light organs for counter-shading. Successful bioluminescent countershading requires that the animal be able to regulate the amount of light it gives off in response to the amount of light that falls on it from the surface. In this way, it can match its appearance to that of the surface light, and blend in.

To demonstrate that the bobtail squid can do this, Jones and Nishiguchi used the following procedure: A squid was placed in a small container, slightly larger than its body, to prevent movement (the small size of the apparatus may have interfered with the results by stressing the animals, but after removing animals who appeared to be distressed by the experimental procedures, they got consistent results.) Then, a light was turned on at the top of the container. A fiber optic probe placed at the bottom of the container allowed the authors to measure the amount of bioluminescence the squid generated.

They found that the amount of light the squid’s light organ released was proportional to the amount of light they hit its dorsal surface (the upward-facing surface of the squid.) This is pretty good evidence for active counter-shading (also called counter-illumination.) This is the benefit that the squid derives from the symbiosis – it can more effective hide from predators below it. This at first seems a bit puzzling, because the bobtail squid spends much of its time buried in the sand. On those occasions when it leaves its sandy hiding place, however, it is very vulnerable, and these are the times when light organ really, *ahem*, shines.

Now, let’s speculate a bit about the evolutionary history of the light organ (in very general terms, of course.) We have a mechanism for selection: both the squid and the bacteria benefit from the symbiosis. The squid gets a counter-shading mechanism that allows it to escape being eaten, and the bacteria gets a reliable and fertile place to grow and reproduce. But what is the cost of evolving this symbiosis? For one, when they evolve specialized mechanisms for coexisting with their host’s immune system, the bacteria might give up the flexibility to live in other environments (this is not the case in this symbiosis, as there are both free-living and symbiotic forms of V. fischeri, but it is a general problem in the evolution of symbiosis.) The squid’s immune system, following the same tack, had to evolve special mechanisms to allow the bacteria to colonize it, which may have fitness-reducing side effects. Furthermore, being part of a symbiosis makes the animals dependent on each other (in this case, perhaps not entirely dependent upon each other, but at least dependent upon each other in terms of achieving optimal fitness.) As a symbiosis evolves and becomes more completely co-dependent, the organisms involved are increasingly restricted to only those habitats and conditions that their symbionts can also live in. Nevertheless, this symbiosis has evolved, indicating that such problems are not actually detrimental enough in this case to preempt the beneficial effects of the symbiosis.

The ways that the bacteria and the squid have evolved live together on a molecular level are manifold and complex. One particular problem sticks out like a sore thumb: how is colonization of the squid’s light organ so selective? The squid has these nice little crypts that are apparently well-suited for bacteria to live in, and yet they are only colonized by a single species of bacteria. In fact, this problem has been extensively studied. It turns out that, during colonization, the V. fischeri and E. scolopes are engaged in a sort of biochemical dance (if you will excuse a student’s romanticism,) mutually sensing and reacting to each other, and putting out chemical and physical signals in a coordinated fashion to successfully live together. This actually presents many problems: the bacteria must be plentiful, but stay contained; they must survive exposure to the squid’s immune system, but not be allowed to infect the squid as a whole. Other bacteria must be excluded from the crypts. The initial colonization must take place, with the bacteria finding the right place on the squid to enter and moving through the ducts of the light organ to its crypts. This process is of interest to molecular biology because it is a case where molecular signals between an endosymbiont and its host have been identified, leading to its use as a model system for the development of such symbioses in general.

I know, I know, you want to hear about the molecular biology, but it’s already the end of the article! Don’t worry – I’ll get to that in a dedicated post soon enough. It’s a complicated subject, and it’s far enough out of my area of knowledge that I’ll need a little time to learn about it before I can write about it. For now, thanks for reading, and stay curious!

For more info on the Bobtail squid-Vibrio symbiosis, check out this great page by J. Graf. Also, as always, I encourage you to find and read the studies I cited for yourself.
McFall-Ngai, M., & Montgomery, M. (1990). The Anatomy and Morphology of the Adult Bacterial Light Organ of Euprymna scolopes Berry (Cephalopoda:Sepiolidae) Biological Bulletin, 179 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1542325

Jones, B., & Nishiguchi, M. (2004). Counterillumination in the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes Berry (Mollusca: Cephalopoda) Marine Biology, 144 (6), 1151-1155 DOI: 10.1007/s00227-003-1285-3


  1. We see those symbioses a bit in deep sea fish as well. Very cool stuff. Can’t wait for the molecular biology post.

  2. Joris says:

    Very cool, thanks for posting this!

  3. Lawrence says:

    Good post! I did an undergraduate project on the V. fischeri – E. Scolopes symbiosis, this reminded me again why it was such a fascinating subject. If you are going to tackle the molecular mechanisms of this symbiosis, you’ll encounter some interesting ‘MAMPs’ (microbe associated molecular patterns)- those could also be placed in evolutionary context. :)
    One thing you did omit there, was that the symbiosis evolved as a dynamic regulated process of uptake, bioluminescence, expulsion, regrowth, expulsion, regrowth (and so on) of V. fischeri. Each day (the Mickey Mouse squid is nocturnal) large parts of the housed colonies are expulsed and the remaining bacteria grow in number again populating the crypts. This particular housekeeping behaviour was pretty unique, I thought, and might have an evolutionary implication as well (wild hypothesis here).

  4. Mike Lisieski says:

    I don’t know how I managed to forget that! I guess it will go in the next post.

    My immediate thought when I read about that diel pattern of ejection and re-population of the bacteria was that it would be a decent way to ensure continued specificity in the symbiosis. Basically, the squid is selecting bacteria to keep around based on their probability of adhering to the crypt epithelia during the ejection – so it could be based on the strength of the bacteria’s adhesion to the epithelia, or their distribution in different areas of the crypt. I don’t actually know much about that part of the symbiosis (I haven’t looked up any papers on it yet), so that’s purely speculation on my part.

  5. Ian Ainslie says:

    LOL the cephalopod in the image with all the light sources and diffuse filters looks so cute…
    Great article. Thanks.

  6. Yes it does kinda…


  7. What i don’t understood is actually how you are now not actually much more well-preferred than you may be right now. You’re very intelligent. You recognize therefore significantly with regards to this topic, made me for my part believe it from so many numerous angles. Its like women and men don’t seem to be fascinated unless it’s one thing to accomplish with Woman gaga! Your own stuffs outstanding. At all times care for it up!

  8. Thanks , I’ve just been searching for information about this topic for a long time and yours is the best I’ve came upon so far. However, what concerning the conclusion? Are you sure concerning the source?

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock
  2. Circus of the Spineless No. 56
  3. Cephalopod Photography – Bobtail Squid | Cephalove

Leave a Reply