In 2007, a New Zealand fishing boat, the San Aspiring, was fishing in Antarctic waters. When the fishermen pulled up one of their lines, a massive object was seen feeding on a fish caught in the line.
What was this creature that weighed more than 1000 pounds and was initially estimated to be over 33 feet long and looked like something out of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”?
If you guessed the world’s largest specimen of the rare colossal squid, you’d be right!
Yes, this was the largest known specimen ever found of the appropriately named colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamilton). The squid would not let go of its prey and the fishermen were unable to remove it from the line so they were forced to catch it and bring it aboard. The previous largest catch of this species was a mere 430 lbs.
First, for those of us who do not have daily encounters with squid—and that would include most of us—there are about 800 species of squid in the world. Squid have a central mantle, a finned tail and eight arms. Along with its fins, squid can use a form of jet propulsion for movement. Water is sucked into the mantle and rapidly expelled allowing the squid bursts of speed and rapid changes in direction.
Squid are sometimes confused with octopus. While both are what are termed cephalopods and are in the mollusca phylum, octopi have round heads and eight arms with suckers on them, and by comparison the largest documented octopus, a member of the Giant Octopus species, only weighed 156 lbs. and was 11 feet long.
Not much is known about the colossal squid since they live in remote sections of the ocean and at considerable depths—up to 7200 feet (1.36 miles) below the surface. Their chief predator is the sperm whale and at least a fair portion of what is know about the colossal squid is from finding them in the bellies of these whales. Very few colossal squid have ever been seen or captured, and next to nothing is known about their behavior.
Because of its biological significance, this colossal squid captured by the New Zealand fishing boat was frozen in a large block of water and transported to New Zealand’s premier museum and research facility, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (translation: “the place of treasures of our land”) in Wellington.
Once there, great efforts were made to preserve the tissues, which could be easily damaged during the thawing process, and a careful examination and dissection of the animal was performed.
Some key findings with regards the colossal squid:
♦ It is the world’s largest invertebrate (animals without vertebral columns).
♦ It has the largest eyes (11 inches in diameter) in the animal kingdom, and corresponding large optic lobes in its brain. Again, the colossal squid lives at great depths and uses its giant eyes to gather miniscule amounts of light at these depths.
♦ It has a large curved beak almost like a parrot, which it can use to tear through fish it captures. These beaks have been found in sperm whale’s stomachs and based on their size, it is estimated that colossal squid grows up to 45 feet in length, as long as a school bus.
♦ There are, large, sharp hooks that mechanically swivel on the squid’s tentacles that allow it to hold onto its prey. The more the large fish that the squid feeds on struggle, the more the hooks dig in. Marks found on sperm whales are consistent with the suckers and hooks from the colossal squid, supposedly from the squid attempting to fight off its predator.
♦ Like other squid, the colossal squid has an ink sac organ that allows it to shoot out black ink-like material to escape predators.
After extensive research was performed on the colossal squid, it was placed on display at the museum.
On our visit to Wellington several months ago, we toured the exhibit. What does the colossal squid look like? The squid apparently shrunk considerably after its recovery from the sea. While it is still quite large, it’s a bit sad, at least to me, to see this magnificent creature looking like something you’d see in the past in a carnival side show—some non-descript pale grey specimen floating in formaldehyde.
But wait—more news! Recently in September 2014, seven years after the initial colossal squid was taken, another colossal squid slightly smaller than the first was captured in Antarctica. Amazingly, it was caught by the same fishing boat that caught the first one, the San Aspiring! This was only the second intact specimen of a colossal squid ever recovered and was also brought to Te Papa for research and study.