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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Invertebrate Zoology

Sapphirina auronitens
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Introduction

beached giant squid

Early knowledge of the giant squid came from studying remains washed up on shores. It is believed that this photo was originally published in a Wellington, New Zealand newspaper sometime in the 1950's or 1960's.
Image courtesy: Clyde Roper, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Whether living or extinct, on land or at sea, in literature or in life, large animals have long fascinated people.  The largest animals have been hunted since prehistory:  whales, walruses, elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and large fishes.  In fact, many species of large animals are endangered or extinct due to overhunting or climate change.  One giant animal, however, has remained almost unnoticed and unobserved in its habitat.  That animal is the giant squid (Architeuthis).  The giant squid is among the largest invertebrates on Earth—with lengths measuring nearly 60 feet (18 m)!  They are one of the largest predators that live in the deep sea.

If they are so big, why don’t we know more about them?  Conversely, since they live so deep, how do we know anything at all?  Here we present the myths that surround this elusive animal and a look at our present understanding of these magnificent and mysterious creatures. 

Background and mythology

myths

For over 2,000 years the giant squid has inspired fear, fascination, and fantastic stories. Why? Encounters with this huge invertebrate have always been rare--and distant. And only recently has there been scientific evidence to dispute the legends.
Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History. Source: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

Not so long ago, people imagined fabulous fictional creatures living on Earth— sirens and mermen, leviathans, monsters, serpents and kraken— animals that breach the boundaries between major groups of organisms!  Men and women with fish scales and tails, birds with reptilian teeth, animals from the deep and dark places on Earth!  These creatures were born in the minds of people and perpetuated through myth and folklore, where they captured the imagination and grew with the re-telling of their existence.

One of these imagined creatures, the kraken, with its immense proportions, terrible grasping arms, thousands of suckers, sharp, powerful jaws, and glaring eyes the size of  volleyballs, was based on a real sea animal—the giant squid.  Krake, or more commonly, kraken, is the Norwegian word that means “fabulous sea monsters.”  Olaus Magnus was the first to publish the term in 1555 and Bishop Erik Pontoppidan added significantly to the story in his Natural History of Norway (1755).  Pontoppidan used the term krake to describe a very large sea serpent observed from a ship off the coast of Norway sometime in August 1746.  Giant squid also have been featured in the well-known books Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne.

The North Atlantic Ocean has revealed an impressive number of these creatures over the centuries, but we now know that they are not serpents or monsters at all, just gigantic squid.  Sea serpent, sea monster and kraken all share with the giant squid a long serpentine form.  Sea serpent bodies are the same shape as giant squid arms and tentacles.  At 30 feet (10 m) or more, a single tentacle easily could be mistaken for a serpent or monster!

Today squid, octopus, cuttlefish, and chambered nautilus are classified as cephalopods.  Giant squid are known scientifically as Architeuthis.  Scientists who study squid are called teuthologists, after the Greek word for squid, Teuthis.

Kingdom

Animalia

Phylum

Mollusca

Class

Cephalopoda

Subclass

Coleoidea

Order

Teuthida

Family

Architeuthidae

Genus

Architeuthis

 

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