Hannan’s Pygmy Squid (Kodama jujutsu) with raised arms, photographed in the wild. Credit: Brandon Ryan Hannan

World - Tiny Titans of the Sea: Scientists Discover Two New Species of Pygmy Squids

In the coastal waters of the Okinawa Islands, researchers have discovered two species of cephalopods, named in honor of traditional Japanese folklore.

The underwater landscapes near Okinawa, a Japanese sub-tropical island chain, are among Earth’s most diverse ecosystems. Boasting over 360 types of coral, these vibrant and delicate marine gardens support a myriad of animal species.

Now, researchers from Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), as well as other universities in Japan and Australia, have made headway in cataloging this abundance of life by describing two new species of pygmy squid – the Ryukyuan Pygmy Squid (scientific name Idiosepius kijimuna, Ryukyu-himeika1 in Japanese) and Hannan’s Pygmy Squid (Kodama jujutsu, Tsuno-himeika).

Feisty forest fey

The scientific names of the two new species take inspiration from Japanese folklore, owing to their appearance and behavior. The Ryukyuan Pygmy Squid, Idiosepius kijimuna, is named after the short, red-haired forest fairies that are said to live in the banyan trees of Okinawa. Like their namesake, the squids are tiny, feature red coloration, and spend most of their time in their forest habitat, attached to vegetation in shallow seagrass beds close to the coast.

Ryukyuan Pygmy Squid
Ryukyuan Pygmy Squid, photographed in the wild. Credit: Shawn Miller

Hannan’s Pygmy Squid, Kodama jujutsu, is a newly discovered species within a whole new genus. The Kodama genus is named after the round-headed spirits that supposedly live in ancient trees, whose presence indicate a healthy forest.

The perhaps unusual species name of jujutsu alludes to the preying behavior of the squid, which resembles the Japanese martial art: “Jiu-jitsu revolves around grappling and using your opponent’s strength, and the Kodama jujutsu preys on shrimp larger than itself by grappling with its small arms”, says Jeffrey Jolly from the Marine Climate Change Unit at OIST, who co-authored the paper detailing the discovery of the two species in the Journal Marine Biology. The squid has also been observed with its arms raised and curled above its head, reminiscent of a martial arts pose.

Needles in a haystack

Finding the squids was no easy feat. Both species live up to their names, as they truly are minuscule – the largest specimen examined measured just 12 millimeters in length, shorter than a sewing needle.

Adding to this, both species are only active at night, and the Ryukyuan only appears in winter. Even then, this species has been caught and (incorrectly) identified many times before, being found in the relatively accessible, shallow seagrass beds. This is in contrast to the more elusive Hannan’s, which is only found in coral reefs, where, as Jeffrey Jolly puts it, “there are so many other things to look at, that finding a small squid the size of a pinky fingernail is not easy”, even for experienced ocean photographers.

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