For centuries there was the legend of a giant sea creature with tentacles, which captured she or he who was too daring to venture into uncharted waters. It would had been another of the legends of the sea if not because they have begun to appear mysterious incomplete remains in many beaches of the world. Thanks to dedicated naturalists, today the giant squid is firmly ranked in the animal kingdom, but its behavior and habitat remains a mystery.
In 1869, science fiction pioneer Jules Verne released one of his most popular novels, "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" (J. Hetzel & Cie., Paris, 1869 [Part 1] and 1870 [Part 2]), which tells the adventures of Captain Nemo aboard the submarine Nautilus. The narrative is from the perspective of Pierre Aronnax, Professor at the Paris Museum. In Chapter 18, Part 2 we read the following dialogue between his servant Conseil, the Canadian harpooner Ned Land and him:
- (...) "I would like to see face to face one of those octopus [and squids, or cephalopods] of which I already heard about and that can drag ships to the bottom of the abyss. These beasts, called Krake --- "
- "They make a lot of 'crack'" ironically answered the Canadian.
- "Krakens!" Conseil shot back, finishing without worrying about being ridiculized by his companion.
- "Nobody will ever make me believe" said Ned Land, "that such animals exist."
- (...) "But others out there certainly believe up to this day."
- "Probably, Conseil, but on my behalf, I am quite determined not to admit the existence of these monsters unless I have dissected them with my own hand."
- "But," Conseil asked me, "Mr. does not believe in gigantic octopus [and squids or cephalopods]?"
- "Hey! Who in the hell has ever believed?" exclaimed the Canadian.
- "Many people, Ned my friend."
- "Fishermen do not. Scientists could be!"
- "Excuse me, Ned. Fishermen and scientists! "
FROM KRAKEN TO THE GIANT SQUID
The kraken was a Scandinavian legend about a giant animal with many tentacles that can sink a ship, as Conseil repeated. Apparently, it was just one of the many myths of the Middle Ages. But over the centuries, accounts increasingly more specific emerged. In 1545 one of these appeared near Malmo, Sweden; in autumn 1639 in Thingoresand, Iceland; on 15 October 1673 in Dingle-I-cosh, Ireland; in 1680 in Ulvagen fjord in Norway; in 1770 in Jutland, Denmark. On 27 May 1785 a sighting occurred in the Americas, in Grand Banks, Newfoundland, Canada. In November or December 1790 in Arnarnaesvik, Iceland; in 1798 in Denmark. In 1802 a sighting occurred in Oceania, in Tasmania.
Finally, in December 1853 incomplete mysterious organic remains were found on the beach in Raabjerg, Denmark, and were analyzed by zoologist Japetus Steenstrup, professor at the University of Copenhagen. In the next two years more remains of incomplete specimens were collected, and with them Professor Steenstrup could prove definitely that we were facing a new sea creature hitherto unknown. He called it "Architeuthis dux."
In 1861, northeast of Tenerife, the crew of the French gunboat "Alecto" spotted a specimen in the water. Commander Bouguer approached the animal and attacked it with blows of harpoon and rifle fire, but without much success because bullets and harpoons passed through its soft flesh as if it were semiliquid jelly. After several attempts, the crew managed to slip a noose around the mollusk's body. This loop then ran until catching the animal from the tail fins. Then they tried to hoist it on board, but its weight was so considerable that when tightening the rope, the animal's tail broke off. The squid disappeared under the water.
In 1873 a giant squid appeared dead in the nets of fishermen in Logy Bay, Newfoundland. It was rescued by the Rev. Moses Harvey, who took it home and managed to keep it in a bathtub. This gesture of the priest was very important for Science, because it was nothing less than the first complete specimen.
Throughout the twentieth century, numerous other remains were found, most of them in the stomachs of sperm whales. Others were found dead and rotting on the beaches, and others appeared in the nets of fishermen. Very few were found intact.
Just at the beginning of the 21st century, on 30 September 2004, Tsunemi Kubodera of the National Science Museum of Japan, and Kyoichi Mori of the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association, got the first pictures of a live adult giant squid. This feat took three years of work. From a fishing boat they threw a 900-m long rope with a bait, in a region abundant in sperm whales, 970 km south of Tokyo. The rope had a camera with a flash light. On their third voyage, and after more than 20 attempts per day, a giant squid attacked the bait and got caught. It took it over 3 hours to get away, during which time the camera took over 500 historic photographs.
Finally, on 4 December 2006 Kubodera's team achieved the feat of videotaping a live adult giant squid near the Ogasawara Islands, 1000 km south of Tokyo.
The "Architeuthis dux" basically consists of a body or mantle, head, eight arms and two extra long tentacles. An octopus has eight arms only, without the two additional tentacles. Another difference is that in the circumference of the suction cups, in its arms and tentacles, it has teeth, allowing it more grip against its prey. Its mouth is like the beak of a parrot, and its tongue is very rough, wiht hardened file-like inserts. To reach the stomach, its throat passes through the brain.
Its eyes are huge, about 25-cm in diameter, among the largest in the animal kingdom. Its organs of balance consist in bags with granules of minerals, whose movements it gets to feel.
Like the octopus, it is capable of shooting a powerful stream of water for locomotion, through a special organ.
Its flesh is very particular with a high ammonia content. This possibly allows it to float freely in the water steadily, without sinking. Its circulatory system has 3 hearts.
Statistical data, analyzing 105 individuals, show that the body (which has two flaps on either side of the tail) usually reach a length of 2,25 m. With the head and arms, its length reaches 5 m. Adding the two long tentacles, the giant squid total length reaches 13 m. The maximum total mass is about 275 kg. Males are slightly smaller than females.
Giant squids have been found in all oceans of the world, but particularly in the Atlantic Ocean. It is thought that they live at great depths. Apart from this, we know almost nothing about the "Architeuthis dux". Now the next big step is to try to capture a live specimen. This is considered so important that institutions such as the Memorial University of Newfoundland has placed posters offering rewards to local fishermen.
THE COLOSSAL SQUID
In 1925, British zoologist Guy Robson said in the "Annals and Magazine of Natural History", that in the stomach of a sperm whale, two arms were found that at the beginning looked like those of the giant squid, but it was noted that they had strange hooks. It was concluded that they were from a different species than the "Architeuthis dux," possibly a larger one. The name of "colossal squid" was then popularized.
In 1981, a Russian ship caught in the Ross Sea near Antarctica a juvenile, of about 4 meters, of the new species. It was called "Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni".
A handful more specimens appeared, almost all of them in the Antarctic region, until 22 February 2007 when New Zealand authorities announced that an officer of the Ministry of Fisheries, which was monitoring the compliance of environmental laws aboard the fishing vessel San Aspiring, managed to preserve in ice an extremely rare example of an adult colossal squid, caught in the nets. The total length with the tentacles was measured at 10 m, but its body is much larger than the traditional giant squid, with a mantle of about 4 meters. The animal recorded a huge total weight of 495 kg. The specimen was taken to the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, where it followed a careful process of thawing and finally the hard-seeked, long-awaited dissection.
According to the analysis of several beaks of "Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni" found in the stomachs of whales, it is estimated that there should be even larger specimens of the colossal squid, reaching up to 14 m in length, making it the largest invertebrate in the world.
So, with these evidences, the fog of myth and superstition has being dissipating, leaving behind this inhabitant of the deep, no less amazing.
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Originally published in ABC Color, on 29 May 2007. Illustration: The novel "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea", by Jules Verne, helped to popularize the concept of the giant squid as a real animal. However, it still contains some mythological details: there is no evidence that they have ever attacked any human being. Credit: Alphonse de Neuville, for the illustrated edition of 1871.