Colossal Squid!


Speaking of hugging your squid today, A colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, has been caught — it’s about 10 meters long and weighs about 450 kg. The place to go for all the information is TONMO, of course; I’ll just share some of the pretty pictures with you.


Sad to say, this beautiful beast is currently residing in the freezer hold of a New Zealand fishing boat, but at least it’s on its way to being studied by scientists rather than chopped up as calamari (every single news article seems to be mentioning that the calamari rings would be the size of tractor tires—they don’t bother to mention that tractor tires might taste better.)


  1. Observer says

    I feel sad. It reminds me of when someone won a HUGE old lobster. Large squid have been studied before – what will they learn from this one as it’s dead?

  2. says

    “There was quite a lot of excitement onboard … the decision was taken that the chances of survival were not good, and in the interests of science it should be taken on board,” Dolan said.

    They weren’t trying to catch the squid. By the time they realized what they had, it was going to die anyway, so they decided it would be better to keep it for study than to toss the soon-to-be-dead creature back.

  3. rrt says

    Take PZ’s advice and go to Tonmo, Bill. Great resource for this stuff. Dr. O’Shea is a regular contributing member there, so you’ll have the real inside scoop.

  4. Observer says

    I’m still sad. If it could have lived and been tagged like the Australians have been doing with studying sharks – monitoring their swimming patterns across the ocean, that would have been cool. Such is life.

  5. Frank Anderson says

    The third picture down may be the coolest photograph I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the Photoshop masterpiece depicting an absurdly large Limulus, which you can see here if you haven’t already.

    But um, this one’s real. Cephalopods win. Again.

  6. says

    Awesome! As soon as I read about this I scurried right over here. SCURRIED, I tells ya. Observer, I thought the same — shame they had to kill the fella.

  7. says

    I’m still sad. If it could have lived and been tagged like the Australians have been doing with studying sharks – monitoring their swimming patterns across the ocean, that would have been cool. Such is life.

    Part of the problem is that it is hard to capture the giants. They run deep, do giant squid.

  8. Graham Douglas says

    My first thought, when this came on the lunchtime news, was “I’ll bet PZ gets a blog entry out of this PDQ”.

  9. Mike Huben says

    Imagine the size of the giant axons of a colossal squid. Might get transmission of nervous signals faster than light. :-)

  10. garth says

    is it possible to implant tracers in the guy of animals through a bait? for instance tie a bait onto a line with a transmitter in it, and when the bait is taken by an animal it can be activated? i realize the crapshoot nature of an experiment like this, but there could be uses.

    and aren’t there supposed to be however many dozen more large species to discover in the ocean, at least as far as statistics are concerned?

    what a magnificent monster!

  11. says

    Observer asks: Large squid have been studied before – what will they learn from this one as it’s dead?

    I think it’s sad, too, although even giant squids have a “live fast, die young, leave a lot of offspring, eat anything that doesn’t eat you first” lifestyle, so the squid probably wouldn’t relate much to our sympathy.

    But to answer your question, almost all of the large squids that are caught are a very different species, usually Architeuthis dux which is in a quite different family. Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni is actually a Cranchiid squid, and the only one that’s large at all, and it’s a quite different animal. It is known almost entirely from beaks and body parts from whale stomachs, so scientists have had very few opportunities to look at its adult anatomy at all. This is actually a major scientific opportunity, since, this may be the first sexually mature Mesonychoteuthis ever seen by scientists, and the almost-mature animal Steve O’Shea examined in 2003 was female, so this will be the first male that he’s able to study. Also, so far, in all specimens examined by scientists, the eyes have been destroyed in the process of capture, so no one knows what Mesonychoteuthis eyes’ anatomy is at all, except when they’re very young ( less than a foot long). Wikipedia has a page on the few specimens that have been caught but note that many are juveniles or just beaks or tentacles. As far as I know, the only whole specimens that were examined by scientists were the 1981, 1985, and 2003 catches, all of which were immature… more recently, a head and arm crown was recovered from an animal that was too heavy for fishermen to bring on board, too, but still, the number of these animals that have been studied in any meaningful way can be counted on one hand.

    Although it’s always sad to see an majestic, large animal lose its life, to say that nothing can be learned is a gross understatement. A few of the many things I’m hoping to hear about from this animal (and I’m just a fanatic layperson!) include: anything about the eyes, physiological changes in sexually mature animals, male sexual characteristics, neuroanatomy, any signs of the evolutionary history of this animal, molecular evidence for the relationship to other Cranchiidae, comparison of the beak to the full animal (since we have a lot of beak samples from whales, but very little to correlate them with).

    In addition to its size, this is a very unusual squid in a number of resepects. The Cranchiids are rather different in anatomy, behavior, and probably history from other squids: most are small, transparent neutrally buoyant animals… and I believe Mesonychoteuthis is the only one with the distinctive sucker and tentacle anatomy that puts it into this group that has hooks, and it’s certainly the only one with this size and lifestyle. The hooks are particularly interesting in that fossil belemnites were also known to be squid-like animals with hooks on their 10 arms, so this may be of value to understanding cephalopod live history, as well.

    Tolweb has great information on the relationships between these animals; if you start at the Colossal Squid page you can work your way up the taxonomic tree and see how distant this animal is from Architeuthis, which is much better known, at least in terms of specimens that have been examined postmortem. It’s also interesting to start with the Cranchiidae and work your way up or down…

  12. says

    Re: giant giant axons

    At least Architeuthis giant axons aren’t any more giant than boring old market squid axons. Nixon & Young report that in Mesonychoteuthis the giant fibers (I think from the 1170 mm Mantle Length specimen) has “one or more giant fibres reaching 300 micrometers, but most are smaller.”

    But this new one is by far the largest and probably the most mature animal caught, so any neuroanatomy (or any other anatomy) that changes at sexual maturity may be new territory!

    Oh, yeah, and I forgot to mention in the last post that studying the gut contents may be very exciting, too, although it may just have chowed down on the Patagonian Toothfish that the fishermen were actually going after.

  13. chriss says

    Thanks for the post PZ. As a professional diver who has had a deep seated fear and loathing of leeches I am now wholly rid of that phobia.

  14. Phoenician in a time of Romans says

    I think it’s safe to say that Steve O’Shea is probably giggling to himself continously at this point.

  15. says

    It’s just a matter of time before some fisherman hooks a cephalopod like that, and starts to bring it in – thinking it’s dead or nearly dead – and the squid pimp-slaps him with all arms and tentacles, having decided that if it’s goign to die, it will take one of the hairless beach apes with it.

    Will make for some great video too.

  16. Steve_C says

    I’m thinking the big squid must be pretty adept at avoiding fishing nets considering how rare they turn up.

  17. Observer says

    Mark Montague, it appears you answered my question exactly as I’d hoped for since large squid have been studied before, just as great whites, etc. (We don’t really need to open any more great white sharks’ stomachs to see what they eat). I will read the information you posted tonight when I have the time to concentrate on more than a few sentences at a time during work.

    But, thanks very much for the info! I look forward to reading it.

  18. Chinchillazilla says

    The stars are right! The Old Ones are awakening! Cthulhu ftaghn!

    Ia! Ia!

    Man, I have a phobia of large things swimming unseen in the water with me. At least that one’s polite enough to be bright red… Still don’t think I’d swim with it.

  19. Nat says

    How would one go about tagging a giant squid assuming a healthy releasable one could be found in the first place?

  20. Sean says

    Couple of questions from an amateur that a few minutes of web surfing did not answer…

    How does the ammonia content of a Mesonychoteuthis compare with that of a Architeuthidae? Are the dinner plate appropriate squid all inhabitants of shallower waters, lacking high ammonia concentrations, and thus tasty while all their deeper brethren smell like janitor closets?

    In the second picture with the captain and the umm, orifice. Sheathed beak? Siphon? Multipurpose?

    Where do squid hide the water intakes for propulsion? Every explanation just says ‘mantle’.

    Where do the squid do the nasty? (in the ocean *rimshot*) The wiki article on Meso says they lack the sperm transferring tentacle found on other squid and most likely use a penis.

  21. Buffybot says

    Isn’t it magnificent!

    I heard on the radio this morning that it’s going to be put on display at the Te Papa museum here in Wellington. When it does, I’ll go along to see it (you couldn’t keep me out of there with a taser) and report back. I can’t wait to see it.

    The last big squid catch was also displayed at Te Papa – that was the one with sharp back-pointing claws along the tentacles. The tank built for it was approx 10 feet long, and they’d had to fold it in. It’s good to be living in a hot-bed of squid research.

  22. says

    As long as I’m doing the “I’m not a teuthologist, but I did stay at a holiday inn express last night” thing, I’ll take a shot at some of these questions:

    Dr. Gilly’s lab tagged Jumbo squids, I think similar things could be done with larger squids if they were caught more often: pdf of the paper. Of course, it’d probably require an attaching device at the end of a long stick…. and clearly a job for Marlin Perkins’ Assistant Jim.

    I’m pretty sure Mesonychoteuthis has ammonia for buoyancy, although it may be distributed differently than Architeuthis. The jumbos, which are caught for food (Dosidicu gigas) are actually seasonal; sometimes they have too much ammonia to eat, sometimes not.

    The stuff around the beak is the buccal mass, essentially the mouth musculature. I don’t see the siphon in any of the pictures.

    I don’t think anyone’s ever seen a mature male colossal squid before, so its reproductive anatomy may be unknown.

    All cephs have the “intake for the water (and respiration) all around where the mantle joins the head, except for a little connective tissue, so the water comes in through a very wide gap to “inhale” and then the squid can seal it off to direct all of the “exhale” through the funnel if it wants to for jet propulsion. When they’re swimming with fins, though, they often just breathe in and out through the larger “all around” opening (squids less so, since they seem to like jetting around all the time, although they swim with fins sometimes… the non-ammoniacal squids jet constantly to avoid sinking, but the neutrally buoyant ones can just hang out… I’m not sure about sepioteuthis, which I didn’t think had ammonia, but seems to like to stay still in the water column without jetting. But most market squids have to jet around just to avoid sinking. Cuttlefish and Nautilus have gas flotation.

  23. KiwiInOz says

    When talking to Steve O’Shea make sure that you ask him about the time that he went on holiday leaving a large squid on his desk, and stinking out the whole zoology block at Auckland Uni.

  24. says

    This is sign of things to come. They’re going to take over!

    It may well be one of the few positive effects of global warming: for those who enjoy meaty calimari, recent research suggests that while rising sea temperatures can have a catastrophic effect on many species of fish, squid and octopuses become bigger in warmer waters.

    Scientists in Australia discovered five years ago that the breeding cycle and growth rate of squid is directly related to the temperature of the sea. A 1 per cent increase in the temperature of the water where they reproduce and feed can cause juvenile squid to double their size. The reason for such colossal growth, scientists believe, is because the animals’ digestive enzymes work faster in warmer waters.

  25. Ichthyic says

    Part of the problem is that it is hard to capture the giants. They run deep, do giant squid.

    sounds like it’s time to start a satellite transmitter tagging program.

    With the cooperation of the fisherman, they could attach one and it would detach automatically after a while. Druing the time it’s attached, it typically would record depth, water temp, speed, direction, etc.

    the data WOULD be invaluable.

    The same thing was done with White Sharks in CA and it turns out they actually make it all the way out to Hawaii in some cases.

  26. David says

    I know they said it was dieing, But the last couple photo’s looks as if its just not wanting to give the fish up. Must of been starving! There is nothing to get hooked up on, as its a long line, the fish done that all ready. So i wonder. (Kill joy) comes to mind.

  27. David says

    I know they said it was dieing, But the last couple photo’s looks as if its just not wanting to give the fish up. Must of been starving! There is nothing to get hooked up on, as its a long line, the fish done that all ready.

  28. Mez says

    Phoenician, when I heard Steve O’Shea talking a few hours back on a radio interview about this, he said he’d been answering questions for about 16 hours straight. Tired but happy was my diagnosis.

  29. hatsuunjindo says

    This is one of the neatest things I’ve seen in a looong time.

    I know it’s very Jules Verne of me, but I wish we could do studies of these large squids’ ability to reason. If cuttlefish have the reasoning ability comparable to a dog’s or pig’s, imagine what a giant squid may be capable of …

  30. fritz says

    Im 15 years old and these kinds of thing intrest me, does this mean there are still alot more squids like this in the ocean or it just really rare
    and also if you went out looking for one what are the chances of you finding it

  31. Jenn says

    Its not known how many Colossal squids there are nor about its cousin the giant squid. But I don’t think they are a rarity. Its just that they rarely come to the surface, and occasionally when they do no one is around to see it or as was the case with this one it got tangled up in a fishing net/line. Often times people find their remains washed up on shore after they have died. Sometimes they will find some remains in a predator The giant squids only known predator is the sperm whale. I don’t know about the colossal. People have seen sperm whales that clear have scars on them from a battle with one of this creatures or again find remains in them.

    As far as searching for one and your success of actual finding one. Not likely again for the most part these creatures rarely come to the surface. Anyone who has seen one a live it has been a fluke. I know that there have been times where researchers have tried to find Giant squids and sent a camera deep into the water the most they saw were very young giant squids I’m talking like the size of your fingernail if not smaller. Not one that is fully grown or adolescent age.

  32. Ichthyic says

    But I don’t think they are a rarity.

    indeed, given that various populations of sperm whales focus on them as a prey item, they couldn’t be all that rare.

    In fact, some of what we know about giant squids comes from the study of sperm whale stomach contents and scarring on their skin from the toothed suckers.

    It’s just that when you live in the deep mesopelagic zone, this is a HUGE area (in 3 dimensions, no less), and there are little in the way of distinguishing physical features of their environment to focus on (no reefs, for example), so catching one is a difficult enterprise… unless you’re a sperm whale.


  33. Ichthyic says

    I know that there have been times where researchers have tried to find Giant squids and sent a camera deep into the water the most they saw were very young giant squids I’m talking like the size of your fingernail if not smaller. Not one that is fully grown or adolescent age.

    actually, some japanese fisherman accomplished that task just last year.

    I’m sure the video is on the TONMO site somewhere, or you can just google it up.

  34. juanita says

    omg my social studies teach was talking about that and well that is soo cool and i think that it is true the world is well ‘unknown’ to manind

    peace -juanita-

  35. Gedney says

    its true that we barely know about these animals but some of you tree hugging dirt worshipers need to think it was almost dead when the got it on board


  36. Bfly1 says

    This is my new FAVORITE animal!!!!!!!! i can not get enuf information so keep it coming. It bothers me that such a beautiful creature had to be captured and die for the sake of research. It is very obvious to me that it was starving which would explain its state of lithargy. The fisherman said he was suprised at how easily he captured it. The poor thing didn’t put up any kind of fight and held on to the hook fish in it’s tentacles.

  37. Jacob says

    its funny how everything in the deep is bigger than anything on land or smaller than it, almost.
    and the giant siphonophore almost scares me 0_o
    look it up on google images if u dont know it (130 feet)
    anyways, thats one big squid!

  38. says

    Yes, that is one big squid. Saved for study, that is good I suppose. Could it have really been eaten if wanted? I wonder if it would have been edible? Maybe make animal food from it?

  39. says

    Colossal move:
    The colossal squid specimen will be moved from the formalin fixing tank to its new display tank on wednesday 6th August. We hope to have a webcam up and running from around 9am NZ time (early evening US time)- during the morning we will be examining the specimen with Dr Steve to determine what repairs, if any, need to be made to the rip in the mantle, and manouvering it onto a lifting cradle. The actual lift should take place around 2pm. Once in the new tank over the next few months we will be developing the display and lighting, while the specimen is mounted in the tank before it goes on display at Te Papa in early December.

  40. john says

    Hmm… Looks scary,although fascinating isn’t it!? Well I have to choose whether fascinating or scary(shocked mode)?! You know what? You can make a novel(fiction novel) out of that!!!

  41. maddie says

    you need to stop looking for these things you are going to cause something bad the giant squid will revile its self when it is ready and squid is gross so stop catching them !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!