MadSci Network: Zoology

RE: Does the Giant Squid exsist?

Area: Zoology
Posted By: Kelleen Flaherty, Staff, Biology/Invertebrate Zoology expert
Date: Thu Nov 21 10:26:48 1996

Oh YES the giant squid exists!! And quite a cool critter it is, too! We used to have one on display when I was at the Smithsonian - it was something like 45 feet long (I'm going on memory here - don't quote me) from the tips of its longest tentacles to the tip of its "tail." Maybe it was even 60 feet long - I can't remember. I do recall that we had it in a huge tank of preservative, with the tentacles folded back on themselves to get the whole thing to fit!

Giant squids are popular subjects of myths and disbelief - it's not particularly surprising to get a question like "does it really exist?" These creatures are very uncooperatively shy, and tend to inhabit very deep depths of the ocean. They are very rarely caught in nets - in fact, I can't think of an instance when they HAVE been caught in nets - they don't usually get shallow enough (but I may be wrong on this), almost everything we know about them has been from dead (or almost dead) critters that wash ashore.

Even BEFORE intact giant squids were found (and there are precious few around), scientists knew of their existence. They are apparently a favorite delicacy of the sperm whale, which munches out on them when given the opportunity. Not that anyone has really seen this, mind you. But sperm whales have been caught and slaughtered throughout history (more on this if you ask a "save the whales" question!), and when the sperm whales were examined, their stomachs were often found to contain these tough, pointed beaks. Did you know squids have beaks? They do! Made out of the tough protein kind of material that makes up stuff like lobster shells! Even the more conventional little squids have beaks - buy a whole one at a fish market, and look right in the middle of the ring of tentacles - that's where the mouth is. If you poke around, you'll find the pointy bits - and they are pointy! Very sharp! Squids can bite, even the little ones!

Squids (of all sizes) are predators; that is, they hunt, catch, and eat other animals; they're really built for it, too. They have a jet-propelled streamlined body for rapid swimming, a set of eight short-ish tentacles for maneuvering and manipulating things (including food), and two VERY long "fishing" tentacles with big suction cups on them - these are used to catch their prey.

So imagine this: the mighty sperm whale happens upon one of his favorite snacks, a giant squid, in the deep dark depths of the ocean. The whale communicates its intent by closing its mouth around the surprised squid, who, as can be expected, objects to the prospect of becoming whale chow. A vicious undersea battle ensues, in which the squid wraps its mighty and exceptionally strong tentacles around the whale, in attempt to persuade him to remove his teeth from the body of the squid. But the squid is crushed, he loses, and the whale gets his hard-earned snack.

Later on, the whale is caught, and the whalers (or associated scientists) examine it. Good heavens!!! There are sucker-marks the size of dinner-plates all over the skin of the whale!! What kind of monster could make a mark like that?? How big would a squid have to be to make a sucker-mark that size?? The investigators also find the tough squid beaks in the stomach of the whale - the only part of the squid they can't digest. So they know it must have been a squid that made the sucker-marks on the whale. (Scientists call this "deductive reasoning." When you sit around in a museum all day, these kinds of speculations are great fun).

Anyway, the huge sucker-marks were a great source of fuel for fiction (read "1000 Leagues Beneath the Sea" by Jules Verne - there's a great giant squid fight in there). When REAL giant squids turned up, though, although undeniably huge animals (the body region of the squid, excluding the tentacles, can be 10-20 feet long), they did NOT have suckers the size of dinner plates. What did that mean? Did that mean there were even BIGGER squids in the inky depths? Nope. What it meant was that a YOUNG sperm whale had successfully attacked and eaten a squid, and, as the sperm whale grew, its skin stretched - along with the sucker-marks. Mystery solved!

So in short, oh yes, they exist for sure! The undisputed "King of the Giant Squids" is a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History by the name of Clyde Roper. He is a MALACOLOGIST (a person who studies molluscs - molluscs include snails, slugs, clams, squids, scallops, "shipworm," limpets, and chitons). He specializes in CEPHALOPODS (squids and octopi). And he is quite a guy - he can do everything from lecture about the history of the giant squid in literature to show you how to cook squid with ink sauce (really!).

If you would like to learn more about the giant squid, including picking up some hard facts (like exactly how long they can get and exactly how deep they live and exactly what they eat and exactly what eats them, etc.), I would like to direct you to one of the best internet sites I know of; it's one of the Smithonian Natural History Museum's "on-line exhibits," entitled "In Search of the Giant Squid." GREAT graphics, photos, and information! You can find it here: Squids From this site, you can link to "squid links around the world" as well as to the Smithsonian Institution of Natural History's Home Page - which EVERYONE should have bookmarked! Good luck on your search, and thanks for the cool question!

Kelleen Flaherty, Washington University in Saint Louis

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