first photos of a living giant squid,
caught off a Japanese island Giant squids are one of the world's largest and most mysterious animals. Although until recently no one had ever caught one alive, they have given rise to legends of sea monsters, like the kraken of Norway, stories of sailors being pulled into the sea, ships being overturned, and elementary school maps with fierce sperm whale and giant squid battles. [Source: David Grann, The New Yorker, May 24, 2004]
The largest of all invertebrates, the giant squid reportedly can reach 60 feet (20 meters) in length (twice the length of a bus) and weigh up to half a ton. Found at great depths below the surface, they have eight short tentacles like other squids as well as a 1½-foot-wide mouth, two long tentacles with sucker-covered clubs at the end, They have the largest eye of any animal that has ever lived. At 15¾ inches it is the size of a human head.
Much about giant squids is unknown.No one is sure how long giant squids live and nobody knows for sure what depths they live at although depths of around 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) are a good guess. It is not known how aggressive they are; whether they hunt alone or in packs. Some scientists believe they feed by simply unfurling their arms and gathering in prey that passes their way. The giant squid’s scientific name, "Architeuthis” , means “ruling squid.”
Websites and Resources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noaa.gov/ocean ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Ocean World oceanworld.tamu.edu ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute whoi.edu ; Cousteau Society cousteau.org ; Montery Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org
Websites and Resources on Fish and Marine Life: MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures ; Census of Marine Life coml.org/image-gallery ; Marine Life Images marinelifeimages.com/photostore/index ; Marine Species Gallery scuba-equipment-usa.com/marine
Giant Squid Characteristics and Sex
Giant squids have many of the same features as regular squids but bigger: widely spaced eyes, a parrot-like mouth, a raspy, serrated tongue and torpedo-shaped head. Each of its eight tentacles is covered with hundreds of suckers, ringed with sharp teeth. Their skin is iridescent and filled with chromataphores. Near the back of its head is a funnel that shoots out black ink.
Adult giant squid are thought to weigh between 100 and 400 pounds with exceptionally large ones exceeding 1,000 pounds. They possess two clubbed tentacles that can extend for up to 30 feet. Reports of 60 foot long giant squids appear to have been achieved by simply pulling and stretching elastic dead squid so a 40 foot one is stretched out to 60 feet. Females are typically larger than males.
Giant squid are thought to rise in the water column at night to feed. Samples taken from giant squid stomachs indicate they eat a lot of other squids and eat each other. Their age and growth rate can be determined examining calcium deposits in the squid’s statolith, a bonelike particle in the squid’s ear.
Male giant squids have a penis that is five feet long and sex may include homosexuality, group sex and cannibalism. The penis is tipped with a cartilage-like plug used to cut the female’s arms and deposit batches of sperm. In response the female my bite off some of the male’s body parts.
Females are thought to release as many as 4 million eggs. They are usually released during summer nights by females who migrate to shallow waters. Baby giant squids are cricket-size creatures called paralarva, They often come into shallow coastal water to feed.
Stories About Giant Squids
image made in 1875 Giant squids may have been the source of “dragon that is in the sea” in Tales of Gilgamish, from ancient Mesopotamia, and the Scylla in Homer’s Odyssey. The Roman encyclopedia described a gigantic “polyp” that was “smeared with brine and had a terrible smell.”
Norwegians coined the term Kraken (a slang term meaning a tree with roots still attached) to describe giant tentacled creatures A description in the 18th century “ Natural History of Norway” described one as being as large as a “floating island” with ship length-horns and arms capable of grabbing “hold of the largest man-of-war” and “pulling it down to the bottom.”
In “ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” Jules Verne describes a giant squid “a terrible monster worthy of all legends about such creatures” and depicts a battle between 25-foot-long creature and a submarine. The story was inspired by reports of a giant squid caught in 1861 off the Canary Islands (See Below). More recently one was the villain in a 1991 Peter Benchley novel “ The Beast”.
Describing one in Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote: “A vast, pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream color...innumerable long arms radiating from its center, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.”
Giant Squid Specimens and Sperm Whales
Giant squid are found in all the world's oceans. About 200 specimens have been found, most of them pieces that had washed ashore. In the past decade or so about 30 specimens have been hauled up in deep water fishing nets. The first specimen to receive public attention was a jaw taken from a specimen retrieved off the coast of Iceland in 1854 that gave proof that the creature was not just a myth.
A number of reports of exceptionally large beasts have surfaced over the years, One specimen with a 21½ foot-long body and one tentacle measuring 35 feet long floated into Trinity Bay Newfoundland in 1878. A 57-foot specimen, including a 49 foot tentacle, washed up on Lyall Bay, Cook Strait, New Zealand in 1888. In 1958, a 47-foot-long one was found. There was also a report of a 21-meter-long specimen found off New Zealand with eyes that were 40 centimeters across, the largest eye in the animal kingdom.
In July 2002, two early morning joggers discovered a 250 kilogram, 15-meter-long giant squid washed up on Seven Mile Beach, 10 miles east of Hobart, Tasmania. Around the same a number of other giant squids were found, including 14 juveniles caught in fishing nets off New Zealand.
According to some estimates a 50-ton sperm whale may eat up to three or four giant squids a day (the stomachs of some dissected sperm whales contains handfuls of giant squid beaks). Whalers that hunted sperm whales until the 1980s reported harpooned sperm whales vomiting up giant squids with tentacles as thick as a man's thigh.
Giant squids are relatively slow, which makes them easy prey for sperm whales, but they are believed to put a some degree of fight. Sperm whales almost always have scars from the squid's sharp toothed suckers around their mouths. Some of the sucker scars are 13 centimeters across. Beaks larger than those of the largest specimens have been found in sperm whale stomachs.
Encounters with Giant Squids
Alecton giant squid, 1861 In November 1861, the crew on a French steamship named the Akecton encountered a "colossal slimy embryo" near the Canary Islands and tried to catch it and kill it. Reports from crew members said that hurled harpoons seem to bounce off it and bullets fired from muskets had little affect. The crew managed to get a rope around the beast. The rope dug into its flesh. After it broke away all that remained was a piece of the tail. The tail and a detailed report was given to the French Academy of Sciences. Skeptics said the rotting tail was part of a plant.
In 1873, a fishermen working off the coast of Newfoundland saw an alive giant squid floating in the water. He said it reached out and tried to grab him. In response he grabbed an axe and managed to cut off one the creature’s arm. It was 19 feet long. He brought it back to shore and it was placed in a museum in St. John’s Newfoundland — the first unequivocal proof that giant squids do exist.
In 1980, Bruce Robinson, a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was trawling for new creatures at a depth of 2000 feet in the Monterrey Canyon off of California. When he brought the trawling devise to the surface and he realized that a giant squid was inside. The squid managed to escape but left behind a 12-foot-long piece of tentacle. He told The New Yorker “the suckers were still gasping — when it was brought on board. He later dissected the tentacle and determined it belonged to a very strong swimmer. He also took a bite from the rubbery flesh. “How could I not?” He told The New Yorker. “It was bitter.”
In January 2003, a crew of Frenchmen on an ocean-going yacht was sailing across the Atlantic when it hit something that stopped them cold. One crew member later told The New Yorker, he looked own on the rudder and saw “a tentacle” that was “larger than a human leg...and starting to move...I had never seen anything like it. There were two giant tentacles right beneath us, lashing at the rudder.” As it unhooked itself from the boat, I could see its tentacles. The whole animal must have been nearly thirty feet long.”
In February 2007, a giant squid was caught in the Ross Sea, Antarctica that was eight meters long and weighed 450 kilograms, making it the largest squid ever found and 150 kilograms larger than the previous largest record. The creature belongs to the species, colossal squid (scientific name “Mesonychoteuthis hamiltn”). [Source: Reuters]
The colossal squid was so big that if cut up it would produce rings the size of tractor tires. The squid had hundreds of hooks on its arms as well a large and powerful beak capable of easily snapping the backbone of a fish up to two meters long, Steve O’shea, a scientist at Auckland University of Technology told Reuters.
The captain of the long-line fishing vessel that landed the squid told Newsweek it took his 25-man crew two hours to land the creature, which surfaced barely alive, eating a hooked Antarctic toothfish that was being pulled in. “Being alongside a creature that big is just awesome,” he said. The squid was male. After it was caught it was frozen. Scientists carefully checked it out after thawing it out a year later. It will be displayed at New Zealand’s national museum in Wellington.
Colossal squids are believed to have a longer mantle than giant squids. The colossal squid also has the largest eyes documented in the animal kingdom: 40 centimeters. Some of the giant squid reports above may have actually been of colossal squids.
Studying Giant Squids
Most giant squids found these days are snagged by fishermen towing nets at great depths. Sometimes dead or dying ones wash ashore. In the past fishermen, at best, took a picture or two and then threw the carcass overboard. Specimens that reached scientist were often hacked to pieces. To get good specimens, scientists in New Zealand have made arrangements with fishermen to freeze any large squid immediately after it is caught.
Scientists who have sampled giant squid say that it has an ammonia taste, which suggests to them that a giant squid can stay afloat without swimming and most likely has a less powerful propulsion system for its size than smaller squids.
Efforts to video giant squids by attaching critter cams to sperm whales have been unsuccessful. So have expeditions using deep sea robots.
Steve O’shea, a New Zealand marine biologist, is obsessed with the idea of catching a baby giant and placing it in a tank and feeding it until it becomes a mature adult. He has been able to catch them using a contraption made of fine-mesh netting, plywood, funnels and coke bottles but has not been able to keep them alive for long. The first time he caught baby giant squids, in 2001, he later discovered that the tanks rectangular shape caused them to sink and the plastic compounds used to make the tanks were poisonous to the squids. With cylindrical, acrylic tanks he has been able to keep the baby giant squid alive for 80 days. [Source: The New Yorker]
Places With Giant Squids
In recent years giant squids have been caught dead in nets off Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. New Zealand and the Azores are hot spots for sperm whales and giant squids.
An area off the coast of New Zealand is reportedly the best place in the world to find giant squids. Fishermen there periodically pull them up while fishing for deep-sea fish at depths of about a mile. The squids are believed to be feeding on the dense schools of fish at that depth and these in turn on feed on creatures nourished by plankton produced by the merging of currents from the tropics with those from Antarctica.
Giant Squids Caught Off Japan
In December 2006, Tsunemi Kubodera, a scientist at the National Science Museum of Japan, caught a giant squid at depth of 650 meters about 27 kilometers off the northeast coast of Ototojima island in the Ogasawara Islands. The squid was not fully grown. It measured 3.5 meters despite having its two longest tentacles severed. It is estimated that if the tentacles were intact the squid would have measured seven meters in length.
In September 2005, the British magazine Nature reported that first video of a giant squid. The image of an eight-meter squid were taken as it tried to snag some bait at the end of fishing line at a depth of 900 meters on the North Pacific near Chichijima Island, 100 kilometers south of Tokyo, by a team led by Kubodera. The squid got snagged on a hook and wriggled free after a four-hour struggle but not before losing a tentacle that was retrieved by the scientists. The scientists were also impressed by the way the squid seemed to aggressively pursue its prey rather than waiting for it to pass its way.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons except 1) Japan-animals blogspot
Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated March 2011