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The Giant Squid: Separating Myth from Facts

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By Shauna Bennett
April 8, 2015

Interested in squids? Then you'll want to learn more about the humboldt squid and its relationship to global warming.
RELATED STORY:
Interested in squids? Then you’ll want to learn more about the humboldt squid and its relationship to global warming.

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

– “The Kraken” by Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1809 – 1892

Imagine you are a hardened sailor from centuries ago, harboring a strong sense of adventure and an imagination to match. The endless seas present freedom and opportunity, danger and mysteries. One night, something catches your attention in the dark choppy waters. It has a fleshy appearance, an elongated shape and an eye bigger than any you have ever seen looking up from the beast’s head. Its many sucker-covered tentacles that reach nearly the length of your ship. Could this be the dreaded Kraken? Is your ship doomed to be attacked by this gigantic monster?

It’s not hard to believe that sailors of old, after catching glimpses of giant tentacles and seeing serpent-like body parts washed up on the beach, would envision that they belonged to a man-eating beast from the bottom of the ocean. Stories passed down through generations would have allowed imaginations to run wild. The legend of the “kraken,” a many-tentacled beast that could pluck sailors from their ships or sink entire boats, has existed for hundreds or even thousands of years. It wasn’t until 1857 that the culprit behind this myth was determined to be the giant squid.

Japetus Steenstrup was responsible for finally describing this animal; he called it Architeuthis dux, latin for “ruling squid.” Without an intact giant squid specimen, he used accounts of tentacled creatures, parts of a specimen gathered from the Bahamas, knowledge of various squid species that had already been described, and an 8 cm squid beak found washed ashore, to make the claim: “From all evidences the stranded animal must thus belong not only to the large, but to the really gigantic cephalopods, whose existence has on the whole been doubted.”

Though it was given a proper scientific name and description, the giant squid remained a mystery for another 150 years, lurking in the ocean’s depths. Science fiction author Jules Verne perpetuated fear-inducing imagery in his 1870 novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” where he described a man-eating cephalopod that “could entangle a ship of five thousand tons and bury it into the abyss of the ocean.” Even through the 20th century, with technical advancements and more modes of exploring the world than ever before, the giant squid remained hidden in the dark ocean world. It was not until 2012 that the elusive monster was finally captured on film for the world to meet.

The giant squid as we understand it today
In rare footage (see YouTube video to right) captured by a group of scientists in 2012 and aired on the Discovery channel in 2013, the world finally witnessed an encounter with a giant squid.

“Dr. Kubodera got so excited that he turned on his flash light, and the creature didn’t run away, so he risked turning on the white lights of the submersible – bringing a creature of legend from the misty history into high-resolution video,” explained Edith Widder, one of the team’s scientists explained. “Had this creature had its tentacles fully extended, it would have been as tall as a two-story house.”

Giant squid have eight arms but use their two long feeding tentacles to seize prey. Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution.
Giant squid have eight arms but use their two long feeding tentacles to seize prey. Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

The giant squid has a main body called the mantle, containing its large eyes, beaked mouth, and elongated head and small fins; attached to this section are eight arms and two extra long feeding tentacles. The total length with tentacles can grow to 13 meters. Stretched out, it can reach about the length of a school bus. One incredible feature of the giant squid is their eyes, which live up to a monster’s description. The largest eyes in the entire animal kingdom, they can grow to approximately 27 cm, the size of a dinner plate.

Large eyes are useful for taking in small amounts of light and navigating a dark abyss, but researchers actually believe the squid evolved oversized eyes to better detect and elude their nemesis, the sperm whale. Sperm whales feed on giant squid, their beaks often found in the bellies of dissected sperm whales. Scars from giant suckers have been observed on sperm whale carcasses.

Despite the fictional stories, giant squid are not known to feed on humans. The giant squid is believed to consume large fish and other squid, including other giant squid. Tentacles bring prey toward their beak, which breaks down large pieces of flesh before the radula, a tongue-like organ covered in teeth, completes the feeding.

The giant squid claims a global habitat. Tom Gilbert and his colleagues from the Denmark Museum of Natural History analyzed genes from specimens found throughout world’s oceans and concluded they can all be genetically categorized as the same species.

Upon being born, young giant squid swim to the ocean’s surface, where the currents sweep them around the globe. As a giant squid matures, gaining size and strength, it will progressively dive down to lower depths, where it spends the bulk of its time.

Colossal squid. Photo credit: Marinebio.org.
Colossal squid. Photo credit: Marinebio.org.

Though its named the giant squid it is not, in fact, the largest squid. A bigger one – the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni – can potentially grow twice the size of the giant squid. Discovered in 1925, this creature is even more elusive as it keeps mainly to the cold waters near the Antarctic. Because of its less extensive habitat, it is likely that the legend of the kraken was based on the giant squid instead of this larger cousin.

The elusive nature of the squid has caused a problem to those who would like to describe it, but its mysterious

Size comparison of a London bus, sperm whale, giant squid and colossal squid. Photo credit: Marinebio.org.
Size comparison of a London bus, sperm whale, giant squid and colossal squid. Photo credit: Marinebio.org.

nature also feeds curiosity. Unlikely to be man-eaters, these creatures could be menacing and dangerous if encountered in their natural habitat given that smaller humboldt squid species have been reported to attack divers. Many things still remain uncertain, such as their maximum size or life span, though it is thought to have a relatively short lifespan of approximately five years. It is also unclear how it hunts.

There is still a lot to learn about the monsters at the bottom of the sea.

 

 

REFERENCES:

1. “The Kraken” 

2. “Giant Squid (Architeuthis dux)”

3. Nilsson D-E, Warrant EJ, Johnsen S, Hanlon R, Shashar N. A unique advantage for giant eyes in giant

4. http://news.ku.dk/all_news/2013/2013.3/squid_dna_tom_inger/squid. 2012 Current Biology, 22, 683–688. (doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.02.031)

5. “The Giant Squid: Dragon of the Deep”

6. “Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux” 

7. “Colossal Squid vs Giant Squid: the Real Kraken Sea Monster” 

8. “Top 10 Startling Giant Squid Facts” 

9. “Colossal Squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni”

10. “Rise in Humboldt Squid Sightings May be Sign of Global Warming,”

MEDIA:

1. TED Talk by Edith Widder, 3rd scientist of Japanese exploration that filmed the giant squid, about how they did it and the behind-the-scenes story

2. Video Interview from giant squid biologist Tom Gilbert about why he studies the giant squid and what they know about its lifecycle

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