When a huge, gelatinous blob weighing 13 tons and measuring 41 feet long and 19 feet wide washed up on a beach in Chile in July, many locals speculated that it was the remains of a giant squid, or Architeuthis.
But, after several tests, including electron microscopy, which looks at high magnifications of individual cells, and DNA analysis, the blob was determined to be the remains of a decomposing sperm whale, said Skip Pierce, a professor of biology at USF.
The remains of the blob were originally found by Elsa Cabrera, director of the Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago, Chile, who sent samples to Pierce. Pierce then compared the Chilean blob sample with other preserved samples.
After running tests on the sample and comparing it to other samples, it was determined that the blob was made up of almost all collagen fibers. These fibers are indigestible and unlike those that make up the structure of an octopus or squid, said Steve Massey, a postdoctoral student in biology at USF.
“There are only a few enzymes that can deal with it and break it down. So not many animals or bacteria are able to break it down,” Massey said.
Collagen is a long, fibrous protein that is found in skin and gives it its shape, Massey said. As part of the aging process, collagen gradually becomes less fibrous and the skin becomes wrinkly and soggy.
When whales die, Pierce said, two things can happen to the decomposing body. The first is that the remains sink to the bottom of the ocean, where the carcass becomes food for other aquatic life. Or, alternatively, the remains float around at the surface for months, slowly rotting away and being eaten. Eventually, the head falls off and sinks to the bottom, then the fluke or tail fin and finally the spine and ribs fall out, leaving a floating mass of rotting whale blubber at the surface.
“Squids don’t have a skeleton, but whales do. That is part of why these things aren’t particularly recognizable when they wash in on the beach: because the skeleton has fallen out,” Pierce said.
This is not the first time that an unidentifiable blob has washed up on a beach and thought to be the remains of the fabled giant squid. Such cases have been documented twice in Bermuda (in 1995 and 1997), once in St. Augustine in 1986, Tasmania in 1960 and Nantucket, Mass., in 1996.
To people unfamiliar with the sea, these mammoth creatures may seem to be mere myth, creatures spoken of in salty tales told by fisherman gathered around a bar in a musty old shanty tavern. But these giant marine creatures are very real and live as close as the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and as far away as New Zealand and the Antarctic.
Although more recent sightings of the giant squid date back as far as the 17th century, it has only been in the last 100 years that marine scientists have actually been able to recover physical specimens intact or at least partially intact said Nancy Voss, a research professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries and Director of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami.
Voss has been studying cephalopods, the class to which giant squids belong, since 1954, when she received her master’s degree in Marine Science from the University of Miami. She has also been involved with several organizations that deal with marine studies, including the Cephalopod International Advisory Council, the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean and the American Association for Zoological Nomenclature. She even had help from her late husband, Gilbert Voss, who also studied and collected specimens of deep-sea dwelling creatures.
Voss said most physical specimens of giant squid have been found either dead or dying near the surface of the water or in the stomach of sperm whales. Although sightings of the giant squid used to be rare, they have increased in recent times.
“It is because there are more people out there fishing and more people see these TV shows or read magazines and they are more aware of the importance of what they are seeing,” Voss said.
Voss said she has had about 16 authenticated sightings since 1950. Out of the 16 specimens found, one would be found about every three to five years. But over the last four years, Voss has received a report of at least one or two giant squids a year around the area of the Bahamas and the Straits of Florida. She even has three recently found specimens in her laboratory freezer.
As far as looks go, the giant squid is similar in appearance to smaller squids. It has a body composed of a head, arms, tentacles, fins and a mantle. The mantle is attached to the top of the squid’s head and looks like a giant dunce cap with fins attached to the sides. Eight arms jut out from the giant squid’s head as well as two tentacles, both endowed with hooks and sucker rings. The tentacles of the giant squid are usually two to three times the size of the arms and can be up to five times the size of the body. The giant squid is also thought to be a carnivore, dining on fish, crustaceans and smaller squids.
Steve O’Shea, a professor and researcher at the Earth and Ocean Sciences Research Center at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the world’s foremost expert on giant squids, said there have been reports of the giant squid reaching sizes of up to 60 feet, but the largest known specimen that washed ashore on New Zealand measured 55 feet 2 inches in total length.
Although giant squids may seem large, an even larger species of squid has been discovered in the last 75 years. This new species is called the colossal squid, or Mesonychoteuthis. O’Shea said the colossal squid is not necessarily longer than the giant squid, but it is certainly the largest in terms of bulk or actual animal size.
“When you see a colossal squid, my God, your eyes are going to shoot out and you’re going to tell yourself that there is no way I want to be in the water with this thing. It’s a truly formidable predator,” O’Shea said.
No fully mature colossal squids have ever been found, so marine researchers do not know exactly how big they get. But many researchers believe that the colossal squid attains a larger size than a giant squid based on the remains they have found. Since 1925, only six specimens of the colossal squid have been found. Three of the specimens came from the stomach contents of giant sperm whales, while the other three were caught in commercial fishing nets.
Since marine researchers have only been able to obtain giant and colossal squid specimens that are dead or dying, they only know a little about them. Because of this, researchers have attempted to capture live video of giant squids in their natural habitats. They did this by attaching tiny wireless video cameras to the back of sperm whales, O’Shea said.
The cameras were attached near the blowholes of the whales and were timed to release and rise to the surface after a few days. The reason this method was chosen was because squid makes up a large part of a sperm whale’s diet. According to O’Shea, one sperm whale eats a ton of squid, about 800 to 1,000 squid every day in order to sustain itself. For every 2,000 to 3,000 squid that the whale eats, it will eat one giant squid.
Unfortunately, the cameras only caught sight of one giant squid. A sperm whale was eating it. One of the main reasons cited for the project’s failure was that the cameras were placed far away from the whale’s mouth.
“They said it was a waste of time,” O’Shea said.
Another method used to capture live video of giant squids in their natural habitat was attempted by Clyde Roper, in collaboration with National Geographic. Roper used a submersible to spot giant squids and record their behavior, but Roper’s attempts went as well as the whale-and-camera stunt.
“When I talked to the National Geographic people, they said they had wonderful pictures of bottom topography,” said Voss.
Although both of these attempts failed, O’Shea is attempting two new methods of recording giant squids. As O’Shea lives and works in New Zealand, a prominent place for giant squid sightings, he said he believes he has a foolproof plan to capture the giant squid on film. He plans to use female squid pheromones in order to lure giant squids near the surface. He will use underwater cameras to film them and document their behavior. O’Shea said he knows the exact locations of where some giant squid live and will attempt this project sometime this year.
The second method O’Shea has in mind is capturing juvenile or immature giant squids. In 2001, O’Shea caught around 18 juvenile giant squids, but they died shortly after in captivity. Although it has been difficult to keep juvenile deep-water squids alive in captivity, O’Shea said researchers are trying to refine the technique.
“(Before now) the longest (a giant squid had been kept) had been 13 days. More recently, me and my team were able to keep one alive for 125 days. So you can see that there has been huge progress already,” O’Shea said.
Catching the colossal squid on video would be a bit harder, O’Shea said. This particular species of squid lives too deep in the water to be caught on film.
Although the future of giant squid research is unknown at this point, O’Shea hopes that everyone will be able to see one in an aquarium in the near future. If he is able to catch juvenile giant squid and keep them alive in captivity, then this may become a reality.
“You can’t go anywhere in the world and see any other squid other then the cuttlefish in a tank. No one has been able to do it,” O’Shea said. “So what we are doing is very simple. It just requires a few unique things in a tank environment that people haven’t thought of yet. But it won’t be long — just a year or so.”