"How big is the squid?" the fifth-graders demanded when I showed up in their classroom with a cooler on Monday.

"Humboldt squid can get up to five feet long--about as big as me," I told them. "But this one is small. It's only a couple of feet."

Fortunately, they weren't disappointed. A two-foot squid was quite exciting enough to keep the class going for two hours, pummeling me with questions as we carefully observed the outside and then the inside of the squid. The visit was part of the outreach program Squids4Kids, and the squid had been donated by sport fishermen just couple of months ago.

But I'd done plenty of visits where I've been able to slop a four-foot squid onto the table. So why was this squid so small?

It's likely that the small size of this fall's Humboldt squid (also called jumbo squid) is a residue of the 2009-2010 El Niño. During those years, there were no Humboldt squid in California, and the squid in Mexico had to make significant changes to adapt. As squid scientist Gilly explained:
In the more straightforward strategy, the squid move a hundred miles or more to the north into the "Midriff Islands" archipelago. . . . A second strategy is remarkable. Instead of seeking an area with maintained productivity, the squid seemingly take the opposite approach and move offshore to inhabit the blue-water pelagic environment of the open sea. . . . In addition to changing habitats, the squid accelerate their maturation and reproduce at a very small size when they are only six months old (rather than a year or more) —one pound versus twenty or thirty.
So what's happening now that conditions are back to normal? Well, as reported by Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience:
Gilly and his colleagues expected to see a return to squid normalcy off the Baja coast when they returned this year. But large squid are still hanging around the Midriff Islands, the researchers found. Elsewhere in the Sea of Cortez, the squid are still small. The recovery is slower than expected, but it is happening. The small squid were about 25 percent larger than they were [in] 2010, and there were more hanging around the old lantern fish feeding grounds.
And Humboldt squid came back to California, after a two-year absence. But they weren't very big, and they didn't stay very long.

There was no time to explain all of this on Monday, though, since I was too busy answering questions from "Did squid evolve from orthocones?" to "Where does it poop?" 
But that's okay. Those are important, too.