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Department of Invertebrate Zoology

Sapphirina auronitens
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How are giant squid studied?  (Sources of information)

Dr. Clyde Roper

Clyde Roper, one of the world's foremost authorities on the giant squid, has nurtured a life-long passion for cephalopods. Dr. Roper, zoologist emeritus with the Smithsonian, is still lecturing, researching, and writing. Find out more about Dr. Roper through his Staff Biography page, at Smithsonian Magazine online, "35 Who Made a Difference: Clyde Roper".
Image courtesy: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Whether found floating at sea or washed ashore as flotsam (debris), giant squid have been reported in records dating back to the 16th Century.  No doubt, these fabulous creatures have been scattered around the world’s beaches for as long as giant squid have existed.  Greek philosopher Aristotle first described giant squid, which he called teuthos, around 350 B.C.  In 1857, Jappetus Steenstrup, an eminent Danish biologist, pieced together from stories, ancient drawings, and one beak, the fact that kraken were nothing more or less than squid—giant squid.  Steenstrup named these animals Architeuthis after the Greek for “ruling squid”.  Professor Addison E. Verrill of Yale University later, in 1873, confirmed Steenstrup’s assignment by examining two specimens that washed up on the Newfoundland coast.

Since then, more than 300 Architeuthis have been found on the beaches and coastlines of the world’s oceans and captured in deep sea fishing nets.  Although this number of specimens is substantial, they have not provided enough detailed information for scientists to fully understand the anatomy or infer the biology of these squid.  This is because many of the earlier specimens were destroyed and never preserved.  Once dead, giant squid decompose rapidly.  Other marine organisms frequently are scavengers on dead squid.  The eyes, skin and internal organs are usually first to be damaged.  Tentacles and arms are commonly missing.  In addition, stomachs are usually empty or, if food is present, it is so fragmented from digestion that it is difficult to identify the prey species.  So, we must look beyond the flotsam to learn more.

Sperm whales eat giant squid

Scientists have found hundreds of indigestible giant squid beaks in the stomachs of sperm whales. Wildlife artist Glen Loates visualizes what a battle between these underwater titans might look like. Image courtesy: Glen Loates, 

Sperm whales (Physeter catodon) are known to be the major predator of giant squid.  Whales stranded on beaches and caught by whaling ships bear circular scars inflicted by the powerful suckers of giant squid.  Scientists have used the size of the scars to estimate the size of the squid eaten by the whales.  Scars as large as 7.8 inches (20 cm) have been reported and some people believe that it would take a 246-foot (75 m) squid to bear such a sucker!  Do not believe it!  Scientists have noted that no fresh scars have been measured larger than about 1.97 inches (5 cm), and no giant squid specimens have been examined with suckers larger than 2.05 inches (5.2 cm).  In fact, the size of giant sucker scars increases as sperm whales grow.  It is also possible that ringworm, a fungal infection that grows in a circular pattern, has been mistaken for old sucker scars.  The current scientific conclusion is that adult giant squid suckers are between 0.79-1.97 inches (2-5 cm) in diameter, smaller on arms and largest on the tentacles.  No credible reports exist of suckers larger than this.

Sperm whales have an interesting way of digesting giant squid.  Enzymes in the large whales’ stomach quickly digest the soft tissues of squid.  The squid’s hard beak, made of a carbohydrate called chitin, is indigestible.  Sperm whales must rid themselves of the thousands of hard, pointy beaks that accumulate in their digestive tracts.  To do so, they coat the beaks with a slick, waxy substance called ambergris, then pass the mass of beaks and ambergris through the digestive tract. 

Clyde Roper puts the size of this Giant Squid into perspective.

The six-foot-tall Clyde Roper becomes a human yardstick to show the size of this giant squid specimen, caught in the orange roughy fisheries off the coast of New Zealand in 1998 or 1999. Image courtesy: Ingrid Roper

The distribution and abundance of giant squid can be roughly estimated from the stomach contents of sperm whales.  Sperm whales and giant squid occur in all oceans of the world.

Scientists also learn about these deep-sea creatures from the catch of commercial fishing operations.  As commercial fishing nets are dropped to ever-greater depths, they more frequently bring up giant squid.  Netted specimens are often in better condition than stranded squid since the netted squid are likely to have been alive before they were caught.  While many of these giants are not saved for scientific examination, some that are preserved have enough remains in their stomachs that some prey can be identified.  During the 1990s, the greatest numbers of giant squid came from the deep waters of New Zealand where they were caught in the fishery for orange roughy fish.

In 2004, Japanese scientists took the first still photographs of a living giant squid on a camera set at almost 3000 feet (900 m) deep. In 2006, these same scientists captured a live giant squid and pulled it to the surface where it was videotaped while still alive.  It is now a specimen at the Japanese National Museum. (See photo in the left column, courtesy of Tsunemi Kubodera.)

There are now about a dozen giant squid on display in museums and aquaria worldwide including 2 specimens currently on display in the museum's new Sant Ocean Hall. Our hall specimens include a large immature female and a smaller mature male. Both were caught by fishing trawlers.


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