That Squid On Your Plate Could Inseminate Your Mouth
    By Danna Staaf | June 14th 2012 09:10 AM | 26 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Danna

    Cephalopods have been rocking my world since I was in grade school. I pursued them through a BA in marine biology at the University of California...

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    I'm here today to talk about a very strange paper: Penetration of the oral mucosa by parasite-like sperm bags of squid: a case report in a Korean woman.

    This study, published in February in the Journal of Parasitology (?!), presents the tale of a woman eating squid who experienced "severe pain" and a "pricking, foreign-body sensation" in her mouth. A doctor found and removed "twelve small, white spindle-shaped, bug-like organisms" from her tongue, cheek, and gums.

    These foreign bodies were subsequently identified as squid spermatophores, which I would like to point out are not "organisms" in any way. A squid, a human, a tree--those are organisms. A spermatophore is like a cup of semen--nothing more than an aggregation of gametes. And "bug-like"? Spermatophores don't have legs. Or eyes. Or exoskeletons.

    But that's not to say they aren't complex structures. (That's why squid researchers tend to translate "spermatophore" as sperm package rather than sperm bag.) Each spermatophore includes an ejaculatory apparatus, which can expel the sperm mass quite forcefully, and a cement body for attachment. Of course, neither of those is a needle or a knife--the sort of thing you'd expect to need for actual implantation (into either a female squid or a human mouth). I've written a bit about this mystery before. As it turns out, no one is quite sure how spermatophores implant themselves into skin.

    But whatever the details, it's happened to humans more than once. An earlier case study reports "sperm stings" from consumption of raw squid, but the recent Journal of Parasitology paper is the first report I've seen of spermatophore activity in a cooked squid (parboiled, to be specific). That's . . . quite impressive, actually. 

    In order not to leave calamari connoisseurs unduly freaked out, I should clarify two points. First, most Western squid preparations remove the internal organs and serve only the muscle, so there's no danger of accidentally ingesting spermatophores. Second, it's perfectly fine to handle spermatophores--just don't put them in your mouth. The skin on your hands, and most of the rest of your body, is much too thick to get stuck. I've probably had hundreds of spermatophores ejaculate on my fingers and never felt a sting.

    Hmm. Does the pain that occurs when spermatophores inject themselves into human mucosa mean that insemination is painful for female squid? It's quite possible. But we'd have to know more about their nervous system to say for sure.

    Writing this has reminded me of further studies on squid spermatophores, so maybe it will kick off a spate of posts. Aren't you just so excited?

    H/t to Henk-Jan Hoving. Thanks . . . I think.


    Gerhard Adam
    Well, that adds a whole new meaning to the phrase a "pregnant pause".  
    Mundus vult decipi
    Uh, "parboiled" doesn't equal "cooked."

    And of course one doesn't eat the internal organs.

    Danna Staaf
    If "one" is American, no, but if "one" is Asian, very often yes. That's why this happened in Korea.
    Parboiling is "a step in the cooking process." *shrugs* It's a biology blog, not a culinary blog. =) The noteworthy point is that the ejaculatory apparatus of a squid spermatophore can survive immersion in boiling water!
    I am not sure about other Asian culinary processes but in Korean cooking, squid innards are definitely removed (for larger ones, anyway). I believe this is a case of poorly or improperly prepared dish.

    The article indicates that the woman prepared the squid herself: she "parboiled a whole live squid for a few seconds in boiling water and cut its body, together with the internal organs, into small pieces in order to check its taste." So it wasn't fully cooked. I'm not sure what this indicates about her cooking abilities, haha.

    Danna, yes, of course, I understand.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to cast aspersions on other cultures'/peoples' eating habits. It's just that it strikes me as, well, insane, to eat the partially cooked internal organs of something, especially a squid. It's like that poisonous sea urchin (or blowfish? or both?) that some people insist on eating because apparently it sends them into rapture. But it can also kill them. I think their rapture is more from the idea of it.

    I love sushi, and I love *fully cooked* squid and octopus!

    Danna Staaf
    No worries! I was just concerned that perhaps I hadn't been clear enough in the main text about how different folks eat squid. And as a pedantic fool myself, I actually do appreciate your point about parboiling. ;)
    Fugu does seem particularly reckless. At least the wounds that can be inflicted by squid spermatophores are merely annoying, not deadly.
    Ah, fugu! The pufferfish. Yes, that's it. Crazy.

    By the way, I'm tickled pink that someone actually has a site called Squid A Day. I'm already a fan of Erin McKean's Dress A Day. Am I now going to have to bookmark this, too?!

    Danna Staaf
    I'm glad I could tickle you! I must confess that currently, updates are closer to weekly than daily, but I try to make up for the infrequency with quality. I would be honored if you choose to add Squid A Day to your reading list! Fugu cultured away from the TTX-bearing invertebrates are safe, apparently. Though I'd still be nervous that there'd be an undetected infestation.

    It's just that it strikes me as, well, insane, to eat the partially cooked internal organs of something, especially a squid.
    And you'd be correct. I believe this is a case of poorly or improperly prepared dish as I've stated above. Koreans do deem squid innards as being inedible (except in certain parts of country where they make a type of "fish sauce" or put it in their kimchi).

    Also, I've never heard of eating raw squid in Korean cuisine... raw octopi (wee, tiny ones), yes, but not raw squid. I don't know why, but then again, my Korean cuisine knowledge is not expansive. Maybe Korean people do eat raw squid in certain parts of their country. But only squid I've had were dried like jerky or parboiled.

    In fact, you can go to your local Asian market and get ready-to-eat parboiled squid. I've actually had one last weekend and it was quite delicious (and no innards to be seen or found). ;-)

    On the topic of fugu, I've eaten it when I was in Japan for my eighteenth birthday, and it is a spectacularly delicious food. So I guess I can kind of see the appeal of some of the more err, unusual fare that can be found around the world. That said, squid for me needs to be of the gutted variety, and this has just further cemented that for me haha.
    Still, this kind of resilience is fascinating. Squid are amazing creatures.

    Just, y'know, for the record: Parboiling means, basically, throwing it in boiling water for a minute and then fishing it back out. So yeah, definitely not fully cooked, by any means. I would be very surprised if fully-cooked squid with organs intact could still have functional spermatophores.

    Danna Staaf
    I was very surprised that a minute of BOILING didn't render the things nonfunctional. Obviously this is an empirical question: how much boiling before spermatophores don't work anymore?
    There has been plenty of research on cooling and freezing spermatophores, but oddly enough none at all on heating.
    HI, we eat plenty of half cooked small squids here in Japan, never had any problem. And fugu is tasty, and less noxious than a cigarette :)

    Danna Staaf
    That's a great point about risk! Given the number of people who eat raw or parboiled squid, the fraction who've had this experience in minuscule. Same with fugu. Far more dangerous to get in a car, or, as you say, smoke. But humans are terrible at risk assessment. As Bruce Schneier (and tons of other people) point out, "People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks."

    This is clearly one of those spectacular but rare risks.
    I am surprised this didn't feature in China Miéville's _Kraken_. One of the more repellant sacraments.

    I'm baffled at the idea that the spermPacks werent destroyed, seeing as for us humans a minor change and temperature or alkalinity can render the little tads useless!!! Amazing!! I wonder since it only reacts along mucus membrane maybe there could be some application for oral cancer therapy? These little suckers are potent let's see what else they can do!! We need to find out more!!! MORE!!!


    Danna Staaf
    I totally agree, spermatophores are fascinating and we need to learn more about them! One of the major reasons they may be so resilient is that the individual sperm are much more protected within the spermatophore package than, say human sperm are protected just swimming around in semen.
    On the idea of parboiling, the whole squid is thrown into the boiling water and then removed after a short time. It is quite possible that since the spermotophores are internal, they may actually be subjected to only a small portion of the heat from the boiling water and possibly none at all. Most food should be cooked completely through to kill off associated organisms within . A minute in boiling water is not enough to do so.

    Danna Staaf
    That's a great point! How do we know the inside of the squid got very hot at all? One of the curious things about squid anatomy is that their "internal organs" are actually quite exposed to the external environment. Their body, or mantle, is really an open cavity. When they're alive, they are constantly flushing seawater through it, so all their organs are getting a bath. I would expect than any dead squid thrown into boiling water would promptly end up with its mantle cavity full of boiling water, so the spermatophores would be exposed. But--it's an empirical question!
    I'm pretty sure this was a scene in Prometheus.

    'Gross, and weird. Why would anybody want to eat squid ejaculate. Now a strong man, that I can understand...'
    Please explain!

    Speaking of "Octomom," d
    oes our government pay food stamps and welfare and public housing and medicaid to mothers of "Squid kids"? Just wondering....

    haha I love it of all the articles, of course the one having to do with squid semen was the top story on this site.

    Danna Staaf
    Tells you something about the internet, doesn't it?