UCSB biologists and engineers attempt to understand the unusual composition of the strong, sharp Humboldt squid beak and its applications in the world of science.

According to Herbert Waite, UCSB biology professor and co-author of the study, the structure of the Humboldt squid’s beak allows the sharp tip to coexist with its fragile body, while preventing damage to the squid itself.

“The squid has made a strategy to interface its beak and buccal mass so that the contact damage between the two is minimized,” Waite said. “This boils down to the gradient that is observed, where the beak is hard on one end and soft on the other.”

The Humboldt squid, also known as Dosidicus gigas, or Red Devil, is a predatory squid well known for its fighting spirit, according to Waite.

“[The squid] is not only voracious, but has a personality that runs hot and cold,” he said. “So it can be abruptly aggressive.”

The squid hunts both in packs and alone, according to Waite. They can grow up to four meters (13 feet) long and have been found to wander into unusually shallow waters. As a result, divers and fishermen often become targets and are sometimes attacked.

“They are really fighters, even when you pull them on the deck [of a fishing boat],” Waite said.

He said that the beak of the Humboldt squid is not used initially during hunting, since it cannot take huge bites, but it is extremely useful in disabling small fish.

“The most damage is done by the sucker disks. The [squid’s] beak comes in for the final kill,” Waite said. “The incisive cut cuts the spinal cord, and the fish is basically sushi.”

The versatile applications of the beak allow the squid to be aggressive in its nature. The study of the beak combines marine biology, biochemistry, materials research and engineering in order to find out how it manages to function so well as a purely organic compound.

According to Todd Schneberk, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Waite Research Lab, the composition of the beaks is determined by breaking down the structures into their basic components.

“First we crush the beaks, then solublize the proteins,” Schneberk said. “We then put the solution in a high pressure, high temperature environment in order to split the proteins into base amino acids.”

Schneberk said that afterward, the solution is run through an amino acid analyzer, which shows the amino acid composition of the beak.

Reproducing the properties found in the organic composition of the Humboldt’s beak could, potentially, unleash revolutionary adhesive composite substances, which could join materials such as clay and metal.

According to Ali Miserez, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher for the UCSB Materials Department, the study will benefit multiple areas of science.

“This [research] has a dual application: one side biochemistry, the other materials and engineering,” he said.

Miserez said the beak is one of the strongest organic materials in the world.

“Resistance to fracture is [the] most important [quality] for structural integrity,” Miserez said. “Resistance is toughness, and the beak is [more resilient] than synthetic polymers.”

Substantial research is being conducted to study the composition, resistance and overall structure of the beak. Meanwhile, locally available calamari steak burgers containing delicious Dosidicus will have even the most disgruntled fishermen and divers falling in love with squid.