The vermic kingdom: handsquid
Handsquid is the common term for a number of related saltwater aquatic species living around the coasts of Ewlah. They all look similar in shape (but not colouration) and all seem to follow a similar lifestyle, differing mainly in habitat choice and preferred food sources. Handsquid are active hunters, with well-developed eyes and dextrous tentacles which they use both for capturing food and for communicating with each other. While some species prefer to maintain a settled territory, the species described below - the lilac flag handsquid found in large numbers off the western coast of the continent between latitudes 10°N and 30°N - is a shoaling species which follows an annual migration pattern, moving northwards in the spring and returning south in the autumn.
As is common with most other vermic organisms, the handsquid reproduces sexually, and demonstrates a sexual dimorphism; females tend to be twice as large (up to 150mm in length) as the males, and less colourful - for instance only the male of the species has dorsal fins. The breeding grounds for this species appears to centre around the islands in the north of their range, in particular Zhweepsuush Civan, Yaabluush Vo'hin and Yaabluush Paragamizhuush.
The lilac flag handsquid is an open water hunter, preferring prey that is smaller than itself. Winter feeding seems to be concentrated in an area where cold, deep oceanic currents well up, providing a rich source of nutrient for a diverse and productive ecosystem. These winter feeding grounds stretch up to 200km from the shoreline, and are concentrated in particular between the Dhounaelhuu Sete-Rhuun southwards beyond the Telik city of Watalatanke. Again, the handsquid are actively fished in these areas. Despite the volume of fishing, the numbers of handsquid appear to be stable, which suggests that there may be other breeding and feeding areas further offshore that have not yet been discovered.
This species feeds on a wide range of other organisms, principally other vermic kingdom species. It is able to swim both forwards and backwards and tends to chase down its prey in short, fast bursts. It has also been observed sifting through sand and mud for benthic prey. Some individuals have been observed using stones to break open shells, and carry around favoured, well-shaped stones when not hunting - this appears to be a learned behaviour rather than a genetically mediated instinct, as juveniles adopted by mothers who carry stones will also have a preference for finding and utilising stones.
Once prey has been captured, it is held in the tentacles and broken into small pieces for ingestion - the lilac flag handsquid has rasping teeth embedded on the inner surface of its tentacles to carry out this task; crushing teeth are also found in the top and bottom of the mouth.
Handsquid display the classic internal morphology of larger vermic organisms. The body is divided into two regions: the head and the torso, with the torso cuff marking the point of division. The exterior of the torso is partly covered in a tough, leathery skin, hardened on the venteral and dorsal sides, with a single, large lateral fin stretching along the length of the torso. This fin is central to the handsquid's locomotion and manoeuverability. Just above the fin can be found a long series of pits which form the creature's differential pressure sensing system, used to detect water movement and locate both unseen predators and prey.
The ventral surface in the female is markedly rougher than in the male. Both sexes posess a pair of ventral clasps (effectively miniature tentacles, complete with rasping teeth) used during reproduction; at the base of the clasps can be found the reproductive orifice. In the lilac flag handsquid the torso is coloured green shading to white in the ventral zone while the fin is coloured green in females and bright blue in males. Only the males carry the lilac dorsal fins that give the species its name.
Beyond the slightly ruffed torso cuff emerges the head. Here can be found the large eyes and the chemical sensors - handsquid posess an acute sense of smell and excellent vision which operates most effectively in the dim light between 10m and 20m below the ocean's surface. Above and between the eyes can be found a pair of defensive spines emerging from the torso cuff - in the lilac flag handsquid these are largely vestigial, though in other species they can be much larger and capable of delivering a poisonous sting as well as severing the flesh of predators. Other species also carry poisonous barbs at the tips of their tentacles, used to hunt prey.
Handsquid posess eight head tentacles, though only six are immediately visible; two small tentacles sit just below the mouth and are used to feed food particles into the mouth while the other tentacles arise above and to the side of the mouth. A second orifice - the water inlet - sits midway between the lower tentacles and the torso cuff on the ventral side.
The internal organisation can be divided into seven systems: the musculature system, consisting of skin and muscles; the nervous system and the blood system, both of which arise within the musculature system; the digestive system; the waterflow system; and the reproductive system. These last three systems arise from the torso cavity, which also plays host to the storage systems.
The musculature system
The gross musculature is cylindrical in form, with the muscle-skin complex surrounding the torso cavity. The muscle groups form a complex weave, with the ends of each group connecting to the skin layer in a series of helixes winding around the torso cavity. A second layer of muscle operates similarly, this time circling the cavity in the opposite direction. Each muscle group is sheathed in an elastic casing padded with fat cells - this allows the handsquid considerable ability to flex parts of its body independently of adjoining areas. This pattern of muscle layering continues into the head and tentacles.
Separate muscle layers can be found attached dorsally and ventrally to the fin, whose base is stiffened by a cartilage-like rod; successive contractions of these muscles along the length of the fin effect the fin's movement, with further refinement being managed by small muscles reaching from the fin edge to the fin rod. Additional groups of circular and longitudinal muscles can be found around the major tubular systems in the body (blood, waterflow, digestive and reproductive) whose actions, alongside valves within the tracts, ensure a one-way movement of liquids through these systems.
The nervous system
The nervous system arises from within the musculature system, and as a result forms a complex net of nerves and ganglia beneath the skin which control most actions within the handsquid body. The neuron net acts as a distributed control system, rather than relying on the centralised nervous system found in Type Two animals. Particularly important are the nerves servicing the sensory systems across the body: eyes; chemical receptors in the head and tentacles; touch receptors across the body, but in particular the tentacles; pressure receptors along the flanks of the torso. Muscle groups are also under direct nervous control. While loss of a body part can impact on the nervous system adversely, the loss of the head does not necessarily lead to the immediate death of the body.
The blood system
The handsquid posesses a closed circulatory system which, like the nervous system, arises from the musculature layer. The primary purpose of the blood system is to transport oxygen and nutrients around the body and remove carbon dioxide and other waste products. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are transported using a form of haemoglobin within nucleated blood cells (thus blood is red); nutrients are transported as part of the serum. The blood system also transports endocrine and immune system chemicals and proteins. There is no single heart, but rather a system of muscled valves along the larger vessels.
The direction of blood circulation is up through the gill rings where the major work of gas exchange between blood and the surrounding environment takes place. Once the blood reaches the dorsal surface it moves either forward to the head region or backwards to the torso, where the general direction of flow is downwards towards the ventral surface. Paired veins collect the blood at the bottom of the head and torso and transport it back towards the gill ring.
Part of the torso blood flow is to the digestive tract, where nutrients pass from the gut and into the blood - this blood is collected by a central vein which passes through the various storage systems within the torso cavity before returning to the ventral vein - nutrient balance within the blood is controlled by the storage systems, which also monitor blood cell freshness and remove old or damaged cells from the circulation.
Another key task - water and ion balance - is handled by a tangle of vessels as they pass the water system complex surrounding the reproductive sacs at the posterior end of the torso. Gas exchange also occurs here (the complex, while not having a defined form, is known as the 'hidden gill') so that muscles in the ventral and posterior areas receive sufficient oxygen to work efficiently.
The waterflow system
Handsquid obtain oxygen from the water around them. Water enters the body through the water inlet valve, between the tentacles and the torso cuff on the ventral side, into the waterflow system - also known as the 'hose'. The first part of the hose filters the water, removing solids and particles from it; blockages in this part of the hose are cleared by contracting the inlet clearance sac. The hose then travels back along the body along the ventral side until it reaches the reproductive sac. Here the hose divides into numerous minute channels as the waterflow heads up to the dorsal surface - this area is known as the 'hidden gill' as the water channels come into close contact with an equally intricate network of blood vessels travelling in the opposite direction.
While some transfer of dissolved gases (oxygen from the water to the blood, carbon dioxide in the opposite direction) takes place in the hidden gill, the main purpose of this diffuse organ seems to be the excretion of dissolved waste products into the water, and the uptake/excretion of salt ions - the blood of the handsquid is slightly saltier than the surrounding water. This process is mediated by small clumps of cells analagous to human kidneys, though the handsquid has no kidney as such. Four interior water sacs can be found below the hidden gill, whose purpose appears to be to maintain a steady flow of water through the gill.
Above the hidden gill, the hose reforms and moves forward beneath the dorsal surface of the handsquid. This part of the hose is muscular and capable of holding a large volume of water. As the hose approaches the torso cuff the water passes through a series of valves which direct it through a network of dividing tubes which mark the start of the ring gill.
The ring gill is where most oxygen is taken into the body. As its name suggests, the gill forms an almost complete ring around the torso, only being broken at the bottom. Similar to the hidden gill, gas exchange is managed by passing blood and water in opposite directions to each other through a network of fine channels and capillaries. Here, the blood passes upwards through the left and right lobes of the gill, while water passes downwards and forwards to exit in a number of orifices break through the skin at the point where the head and torso join - the torso cuff is in fact a flap of skin which covers these orifices and directs the flow of water as it exits the body. Handsquids are able to adjust the relative ejecta flows to aid the organism's manoeuverability.
The digestive system
Handsquid have a fairly simple digestive tract, with food particles being broken down and processed as it progresses through the mouth, foregut and midgut. The transfer of nutrients into the body, in the form of lipid chains, sugars, amino acids and nucleic acids takes place in the midgut.
Beyond the midgut the digestive tract divides. A blind sac known as the reproductive gut is found towards the posterior, passing through the hidden gill and coming into contact with the reproductive sac. This sac appears to be a nutrient store used exclusively by the reproductive sac, though it may well also work as part of the immune system. The second branch is the hind gut, which appears to handle uptake of minerals and excretion of both solids and residues from the storage systems. The hindgut exits from the body through the anus, located just posterior to the reproductive orifice on the ventral side of the torso.
The reproductive system
The reproductive system is a blind tube leading from the reproductive orifice on the ventral side of the torso into the torso cavity. In males the system is fairly rudimentary: its main task is the production and storage of sperm - an energy intensive activity given that males can produce billions of sperm cells during the mating season. In females the sac is a much more complex organ, consisting of egg-producing patches, brood chambers and a complex network of microtubes reaching deep into both the hidden gill and the reproductive gut.
Most species of handsquid, like the lilac flag handsquid, posess ventral clasps (small tentacles) around the reproductive orifice. The dimensions and shape of these clasps varies enormously between species.
The storage systems
The storage systems are loose collections of cells within the torso cavity which maintain the healthiness of the blood system, play a role in combatting disease through various immune mechanisms, house most of the cells involved in endocrine signalling and store excess nutrients (in the form of starches and fats). Because these different roles are shared between cells throughout the torso cavity rather than being centralised in discrete organs, scientists have had some difficulty in identifying how these varous systems operate and interact with each other.
For the lilac flag handsquid, breeding takes place during the winter months in the northern areas of their range. As the autumn equinox passes, females leave the feeding areas and move northwards in great shoals. During the journey their bodies prepare for mating and fertilisation, principally through the production of eggs. Males follow the females some 2-3 weeks afterwards; most males have been producing and storing sperm in their reproductive system for several months and are quite swollen at this point in the breeding cycle, and are particularly sought after both by fishermen and the handsquid's natural predators. It is estimated that while over 80 per cent of the females who embark on the migration arrive successfully at their destination, fewer than 20 per cent of males survive the journey.
Mating is a robust affair, involving an extended competition for choice males between the waiting females after which the unfortunate male is briefly courted and pursuaded to inseminate the winning female. Males can be pursued relentlessly by different females during the mating season, and not surprisingly many do not survive the experience - the average life expectancy of the male is less than two orbits, while that of the female is around seven orbits. Surviving males head back to the main feeding grounds as soon as the mating season is over, leaving the females in the breeding grounds to gestate and give birth to the young.
Fertilisation takes place internally, with sperm deposited at the reproductive orifice travelling into the reproductive tract and into the brood chambers containing the matured eggs. The lilac flag female will have between 14 and 20 chambers in her reproductive tract, with up to a dozen eggs in each - though by the end of the gestation period each chamber will house only one or two well-formed embryos: gestation is a highly competitive time for the unborn handsquid.
The average gestation period is around 45 days, after which the female gives birth to an average litter of 23 young. The majority of handsquid that manage to be born are males, though the mechanisms by which this is achieved are not yet understood. The young handsquid emerge fully formed (their heads are larger than their torsos, and their eyes are adult-sized, which gives them a cute look) and capable of independent life. Nevertheless for the first few weeks of their life the female will feed the young, excreting a jelly-like substance from her rough ventral skin. For their part, the young will spend most of their time clinging to the mother, who develops strong maternal instincts during this period - for instance hunting for missing offspring. Females that fail to breed also develop a strong maternal instinct, and are not averse to adopting stray youngsters, or even kidnapping them.
The migration back to the feeding grounds takes place before the spring equinox, and is a slow affair. During this time the mother will be teaching her young various hunting and foraging techniques. Only when they reach the southern reaches of their territory do mother and children part: adults prefer to feed in the open ocean, while the young prefer shallower waters near the coast.
Handsquid fishing, trade and uses
Handsquid species are found all around the coastal areas of every landmass, and are the mainstay of a number of fishing communities. While handsquid, being a Type One lifeform, have little nutritional value to people, their flesh does contain high amounts of essential salts and chemicals - including flourine and iodine - which are often difficult to obtain from alternative sources.
Because of the variety of breeding areas, feeding areas and migrations maintained by individual species, handsquid fishing can often be undertaken in all seasons of the orbit by a fishing community. For instance, the people of Trhaste, Filegede and Watalatanke and their surrounding coastal settlements will fish for the lilac flag handsquid during the summer months, while those from Tosnha Manise will catch migrating males around the time of the autumn equinox and those from Geldange, E'horhe, Fasine and the Paragame isles prefer to hunt for females during the winter.
Catching handsquid is a challenging affair: because of the creature's flexibility netting shoals of handsquid is difficult. Rather, they have to be caught by hook, and fishing boats will trail long lines of hooks behind the boat as they pass above the shoals. While other types of marine creatures are amenable to capture in pots and traps, some of the more intelligent handsquid species are capable of escaping such contraptions - indeed female lilac flag handsquids have been observed teaching their young how to enter traps to get to the bait and then extricate themselves safely.
Once caught, the handsquid will be gutted and packed in salt on the boat before landing - they can survive out of water for up to a day and are agile climbers, hence the need to kill them as soon as they are bought on board. After the catch is landed the handsquid are dried in lines in the sun before being packed for sale and transport. The flesh is quite resistant to rotting once it is dried and thus requires no further processing.
The price of handsquid increases markedly the further inland it is traded. Traditionally they were traded between adjoining settlements, meaning that it could take up to an orbit for a handsquid carcass to reach settlements deep in the interior. This trading system has broken down over more recent decades as transport links between the coast and the interior have improved, which is just as well because as the meat ages it takes on a pungent and unpleasant odour.
Handsquid meat is used as an additive to many dishes, particularly soups, stews and broths. Any smell the meat might have is destroyed by fast-boiling or steaming the meat in water for a short while, after which the resulting liquor will have a faint tang of iodine and salt. It is the liquor that is added to the food, not the meat itself.
While handsquid is most conveniently transported still attached to the skin, coastal communities will often scrape the meat from the torso skin which can then be further processed to produce a supple and attractive leather. Lilac flag handsquid leather is particularly sought after as it keeps its colour during the tanning process.