Thursday, August 21, 2008

Flying Squid

In the highest mountains of Bolivia, where the air is thin and the wind blows sharp and clear, there is a tiny gastropoda that the children love to play "airplanes" with. It's the Flying Squid, a cute little troublemaker that breaks all the rules of snail-dom and a few laws of aerodynamics as well.

The Flying Squid lacks a spiral shell and what shell there is works as a platform for a set of wings. Much like the Bumblebee, it is aerodynamically impossible for the Flying Squid to fly, yet in a miracle of nature, it does.

The horns of this distinctive snail are actually highly poisonous, and can paralyze a grown man almost instantly, and if untreated, kill him within minutes. Bolivian indians are known for tipping their arrows in Flying Squid venom, a technique that kept the Spanish Conquistadors at bay for decades.

Little known outside of Bolivia, where it is the national animal, the Flying Squid is also distinctive for its unusual "upside down" mating ritual and for the "Squadron of the Flying Squid", an even that happens once every decade. In the Squadron, hundreds of Flying Squids band together, fly thousands of miles out the mountains in a vast circle that take them across Peru, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, and Columbia, and back into Bolivia, where they land for a minute, make a strange whining sound, and then fly the thousands of miles back along the same route. Scientists have no explanation for this behavior, but to witness the passing of the Squadron is thought to be good luck - to such an extent that the area to which the Flying Squids journey in the "Squadron of the Flying Squid" are protected by the government.

Unfortunately, while the Squadron is protected, the Flying Squid is not, and Bolivians consider it a delicacy. Eating the wings is thought to bring prosperity, and the Bolivian national dish involves sauteeing the snail (shell and all) in olive oil and garlic and serving it over a bed of mashed manioc. A new movement to farm raise the Snails has helped, but the population is still threatened.

Ken Burns tried to make a documentary about The Flying Squid called The Snail that Wanted to be a Squid but PBS rejected the idea; he made his documentary on the Civil War instead. During the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara wore a Flying Squid t-shirt to remind himself that he was fighting for more than just Cuba.

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