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The Colossal Squid is Still At Large, and Other Thoughts on the Giant Squid’s Deep Sea Film Debut

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Preserved colossal squid? Or alien from "Independence Day"? You decide. The colossal squid at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Creative Commons Y23. Click image for license and link.

If you’re someone who hopes there will always be some mystery in the world, take heart. Though the giant squid has finally been nabbed on film, the colossal squid is still very much at large.

In case you missed the news, last month the Discovery Channel and the Japanese TV channel NHK announced they had captured the first-ever footage of a live giant squid in its habitat. The video was indeed spectacular, and I’ll have some clips for you in a moment. The story of how they got it was pretty spectacular too. I direct you to the wonderful article by Arikia Millikan that tells that story (h/t Deep Sea News). Go read this story now and come back.

If you don’t have time to read this article before the rest of this post (make time! It’s worth it), I’ll give you the story in a nutshell: Three scientists, Tsunemi Kubodera, Steve O’Shea, and Edith Widder convince Discovery they can find a giant squid, and they each have their own ideas on how to get it.

I also urge you — when you have time — to watch this 2010 TED presentation featuring Edith Widder. In it, she explains the fascinating world of deep sea bioluminescence, and how she developed the light-up jellyfish lure (the prototype was made in a piece of Ziploc tupperware) that made her think she could land a giant squid for Discovery.

So each of the three scientists has his own squidding method: Widder wants to use one of her electronic deep-sea jellyfish burglar alarms, Kubodera wants to use the old-fashioned method — sit quiet and dark next to a dead squid on a hook — and O’Shea wants to go in “lights blazing, singing Neil Diamond, making as much noise as possible, squirting all sorts of chemicals into the water.”

But in spite of their bottomless enthusiasm, our intrepid heroes have no sub. Deus ex machina: billionaire hedge fund manager steps in to offer his 56-foot yacht and three sexy, sexy submersibles for Discovery to charter. With their powers united and appropriate sweet ride(s) acquired, one of the three scientists would go on to be treated to a life-altering 23 minutes in the presence of one of the most legendary and sought-after animals on Earth.

In case you don’t have cable, like me, or missed the show, I wanted to share these two video clips of the results with you. As a fellow passenger of Earth, I think you should see them. I apologize for the commercials you’ll have to sit through, but I think the HD and larger picture size make up for it.

  • “First Video of a Giant Squid”. This starts out over-dramatic and cheesy in typical Discovery Channel fashion, but hang on for payoff. For anyone who thinks scientists are a bunch of soulless robots in white lab coats, this video is an instant cure. The look of joy on Edith Widder’s face when they discover what they have on film made my day. This clip appears to capture a film of a giant squid lured in by Widder’s approach: her “bioluminescent burglar alarm” dangled from a floating buoy. It looks to me as if this was the first video captured, although it was not, ultimately, to be the most spectacular.
  • Discovering the Giant Squid” This is the one to look at for the best excerpts of the 23-minute encounter. Personally, I was *stunned* when I saw the first clip by the squid’s silvery gold sheen. In previous squid sightings, they seemed red. In my copy of “The Deep” by Claire Nouvian (highly recommended to readers of this blog), the computer generated-image of Architeuthis dux — swimming in front of a lit-up submersible, anticipating the very moment depicted in the Discovery Channel video — is an earthy burgundy. Widder, too, remarked on this surprise in an interview about the encounter with NPR.

So. We now have video of a Real Live Giant Squid. Time to high five and go home, right? Well, there is another fearsome squid. This one haunts the swirling, treacherous Southern Ocean.

In 2007, the crew of the Kiwi longline boat the San Aspiring were fishing for Antarctic Toothfish (made-up marketing name: “Chilean Sea Bass”) in the Ross Sea off Antarctica. The crew got what must have been the surprise of their life when they hauled this up on their longline, stubbornly refusing to let go of its toothfish:

This is the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. And although this video is amazing, no one has yet captured one of these on film in its home. As the silvery giant squid proved, a squid 1000 clicks down may be a very different animal than one dragged to the surface.

How is a colossal squid different from its giant cousin? To start, they have different stomping grounds. Their ranges overlap only along about the 40°S latitude; giant squid inhabit the waters to the north, while colossal squid dwell to the south. In spite of their size, the two species not closely related.

There are size and anatomical differences too. As Craig McClain at Deep Sea News recently pointed out, mature colossal squid seem to be shorter than giant squid. According to “The Deep”, giant squid reach 18 m — nearly 60 feet, although McClain disputes this number and places the upper limit based on washed-up dead squids at more like 40 feet — while colossal squid grow to just 9 m, or about 30 feet. The specimen filmed above now measures just 14 feet, although the tentacles are suspected to have shrunk significantly post mortem.

The length difference lies largely in the difference in tentacle size: colossal squid tentacles are significantly shorter. But what colossal squid tentacles lack in length they make up for in sphincter-factor. They bear dozens of swivelling hooks. Swivelling hooks, people. SWIVELLING HOOKS.

“These weapons make it a much more awe-inspiring predator,” Nouvian writes, “and more capable of larger prey, than the giant squid.” I will leave the implications of that statement to your imagination. The giant squid merely has saw-toothed suckers (which are still more than capable of leaving their mark on sperm whale flesh).

Colossal squid also make up for any length deficiencies in sheer tonnage. Their fins, heads, and mantle — the part of their body above the head that generates the squid’s jet propulsion — appear to be much more massive than giant squid, as was probably apparent in the video. The Ross Sea specimen, now safely ensconced at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (and shown at the top of this post), weighs about 1,090 pounds, or half a U.S. ton. The next time you see a half-ton pick-up truck, think about that.

So for any cable networks or billionaires with their own private research ships and submersibles reading this, if you’re looking for the next Big Thing, the colossal squid could be it. And if you’re looking for an enthusiastic embedded science writer to tell the tale, well, please consider this humble, compact, SCUBA-certified scribe. Will Write for Squid-Searching and Bioluminescence-Viewing Ticket!

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. neptsnecklace 9:07 pm 02/21/2013

    I’ll bet the mating behaviours of these fascinating creatures would be weird and wacky – can’t wait for some footage on that!

    Link to this
  2. 2. TomSadowski 10:15 pm 02/21/2013

    The Patagonian toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides, is the fish marketed as “Chilean Sea Bass” in the United States and not the Antarctic toothfish. I could be wrong but I read it on Wikipedia. Thank you for a most amusing article.

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  3. 3. frankblank 3:13 am 02/22/2013

    Good article. Half ton pickups weigh about two tons. Half ton is the payload.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 10:37 am 02/22/2013

    Tom — I believe both species of toothfish are marketed as “Chilean sea bass”. That is what this NPR article on the Ross Sea fishery implies:

    “Consider the buttery white fillets popularly known as Chilean sea bass. That’s the usual supermarket and restaurant term for a deep-water species called toothfish, some of which are caught in the Ross Sea near Antarctica. When the MSC gave its seal of approval in 2010 to several companies that catch those fish, dozens of scientists protested.”

    Also, the MSC page certifying the Ross Sea fishery says they are indeed sold in the U.S.

    Frank — Thanks for the correction on the pick-up truck. I’ve crossed out the sentence to indicate the correction. Thanks!

    Link to this
  5. 5. CharlieinNeedham 4:09 pm 03/1/2013


    Thanks for this fascinating article.

    The enthusiasm of you and those scientists is infectious.

    I loved the way you replied, and made a correction in your story.

    I look forward to seeing other stories by you!

    Link to this
  6. 6. Jennifer Frazer in reply to Jennifer Frazer 4:14 pm 03/1/2013

    Thanks for your comment, Charlie, and thanks for reading my blog!

    Link to this
  7. 7. clairechristian47 10:17 am 04/16/2013

    Both Antarctic toothfish and Patagonian toothfish are sold under the “Chilean sea bass” moniker.

    Link to this

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