Before there were mammals on land, there were dinosaurs. And before there were fish in the sea, there were cephalopods – the ancestors of modern squid and Earth's first truly substantial animals. Cephalopods became the first creatures to rise from the seafloor, essentially inventing the act of swimming. With dozens of tentacles and formidable shells, they presided over an undersea empire for millions of years. But when fish evolved jaws, the ocean's former top predator became its most delicious snack. Cephalopods had to step up their game.
Many species streamlined their shells and added defensive spines, but these enhancements only provided a brief advantage. Some cephalopods then abandoned the shell entirely, which opened the gates to a flood of evolutionary innovations: masterful camouflage, fin-supplemented jet propulsion, perhaps even dolphin-like intelligence.
Squid Empire is an epic adventure spanning hundreds of millions of years, from the marine life of the primordial ocean to the calamari on tonight's menu. Anyone who enjoys the undersea world – along with all those obsessed with things prehistoric – will be interested in the sometimes enormous, often bizarre creatures that ruled the seas long before the first dinosaurs.
"A book like Squid Empire is a reminder that in any scientific narrative, there are always two stories at play. There is the history of the subject you're studying, and then there is the history of its discovery."
– New Republic
"Staaf captures what is rarely seen outside the ivory tower: scientists talking among themselves with a touch of irreverence. Researchers everywhere will surely relate."
"Staaf's approach is short and sweet, well-illustrated and strong on playful narrative [...] I loved this book."
"Intriguing [...] This in-depth coverage of an often neglected but ecologically vital group will change your view of squid, octopuses and their relatives, and make eating calamari feel like cannibalism."
– New Scientist
"Cephs rule! Squid Empire, like its protagonists, is nimble, fast, surprising, smart, and weird in the very coolest sense of the word. What could be more fun than jetting back in time to primordial seas with the monsters who really ruled our planet? In these pages, Danna Staaf makes every dino-lover and every undersea adventurer's dream come true. It's a fabulous read with squishy, slimy delight on every page."
– Sy Montgomery, New York Times-bestselling author of The Soul of an Octopus
"This crystal-clear book will open your world to wider horizons and much deeper times [...] Long before vertebrates evolved anything like higher intelligence, squids and octopuses were on a separate track to versatility, problem-solving, individual recognition, and deceit. Before we can know who we are, we must know who we are here with, and who has come before us."
– Carl Safina, New York Times-bestselling author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
"This engaging book may do for early cephalopods what paleontologists did for dinosaurs in the 1960s: spark a public renaissance of appreciation for these magnificent creatures who once ruled the seas."
– Jennifer Ouellette, author of Me, Myself and Why and The Calculus Diaries
- Introduction: Why Squid?
- The World of the Head-Footed
- Rise of the Empire
- A Swimming Revolution
- The Protean Shell
- Sheathing the Shell
- Fall of the Empire
- Where Are They Now?
- Epilogue: Where Are They Going?
Cephalopods, the group of molluscs that include the octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, are some of the most fascinating invertebrates to live in the world’s seas. Especially the octopus is famed for its intelligence and mind-bending acrobatics, being able to squeeze through the smallest hole. There have been some fantastic popular books on cephalopods recently, from William’s entertaining Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid to several works focusing on the octopus (Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, Montgomery’s touching The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration of One of the World’s Most Intriguing Creatures, which made me tear up in more than one place, Mather et al.‘s Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, and Harmon Courage’s Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea). But, as marine biologist Danna Staaf remarks, what’s been missing is a popular book on the evolution of cephalopods. Having been fascinated with them since childhood, she eventually decided to write Squid Empire. All hail the squid!
Cephalopods have a long and illustrious evolutionary history, stretching back some 500 million years. The fact that they are still here means they have lived through their fair share of mass extinctions. After some basic morphology, Staaf quickly introduces us to the three groups on the family tree, as these are the main protagonists whose fate we will follow here.
A large chunk of the book deals with the now-extinct group of Ammonoids whose familiar whorled fossil remains are so numerous that they can be used to date rock strata. Although many species went extinct at the end of the Devonian, Permian and Triassic, some members of the lineage managed to survive, allowing the group to thrive, again and again, all the way until the end-Cretaceous. With Brannen’s recent The Ends of the World still fresh on my mind I was quite familiar with the details, but if you’re not, Staaf does an excellent job in giving a balanced picture of the various mass extinctions. She is equally capable of giving a short history of the Alvarez impact hypothesis, as she is able to explain anoxic events or large igneous provinces and flood basalts.
The second group are the slow-and-steady (evolutionarily speaking) Nautiloids who seem never to have diversified terribly much, but have kept on keeping on to this day. And, finally, there are the Coleoids who radiated to become today’s cuttlefish, squid and octopuses.
And yes, I said octopuses rather than octopi. Staaf provides the best overview I have read so far of the whimsical discussion around how to pluralise this word. But far from mere whimsy, this book provides page upon page of fascinating insights. Whether it’s the intricacies of evolving buoyancy mechanisms allowing cephalopods to float, the way Coleoids internalised and in some groups virtually eliminated their shell, the continued confusion around the lower jaw or aptychus of the Ammonoids, or the arms race between cephalopods and their predators (first fish, then whales)... who knew there was so much fascinating research buried in the scientific literature?
Being a marine biologist herself, she is well-situated in these academic circles and has interviewed many scientists including Christian Klug, Dieter Korn, Kenneth de Baets, and Isabelle Kruta, all of whom are editors on the 2nd edition of the Ammonoid bible Ammonoid Paleobiology. Interesting findings and insider insights into ongoing academic discussions are combined with Staaf’s narrative which is fiendishly readable. In my opinion, her writing style strikes just the right balance between informative and understatedly entertaining (I sniggered throughout the book), without feeling forcedly funny. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for these squishy invertebrates, but I tore through this book in the space of a single seven-hour sitting! Squid Empire is a shining example of good use of illustrations supporting the text. Especially the cephalopod family tree on page 46 is something you’ll be referring to time and again and has some clever details. Next to that, the book is also beautifully designed with stylised chapter headings and a beautiful Haeckel lithograph gracing the cover.
Dinosaurs may have time and again stolen the limelight, but Staaf shows an accessible book on the evolutionary history of cephalopods has been long overdue. With Squid Empire – which, can you believe it, is only her first book – she has established herself as cephalopod-champion par excellence. I know that 2018 has only just started, but already this book will be a strong contender as my book-of-the-year. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a good popular academic book.
Danna Staaf earned a PhD in invertebrate biology from Stanford University. She lives in Northern California and has contributed to KQED, San Francisco, and wrote "Squid a Day" for the blog Science 2.0.