A giant squid washed up on New Zealand's South Island earlier this week, a specimen whose tentacles reached over 16 feet in length. It caused quite a stir when found, and was rescued from birds and other scavengers by a local museum.
According to an ABC News story, "Marine biologist and aquarium owner Megan Lewis... identified it as a mature female. ‘They tend to grow very fast and live not very long,' Lewis said, noting that the specimen's head was in ‘pristine condition.'" It's not clear how the squid died, but since it was intact and its stomach was full it likely wasn't the result of predation or starvation.
Why Squid Are Monsters of the Sea
For centuries scientists had no definitive evidence that the giant squid (genus Architeuthis) actually existed. They are creatures of the deep sea and spend most of their lives far away from mankind's prying eyes. On the rare occasion that a giant squid was found washed up on a beach (most often in Newfoundland and New Zealand), they were invariably dead and decomposing.
The giant squid's imposing size and fearsome appearance has long cast them as predatory monsters in human imaginations and fictional depictions (Jules Verne's novel "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" describes an attack on a submarine by a giant squid).
In his book "The Search for the Giant Squid" marine biologist Richard Ellis notes that "There is probably no apparition more terrifying than a gigantic, saucer-eyed creature of the depths... Even the man-eating shark pales by comparison to such a horror... An animal that can reach a length of 60 feet is already intimidating, and if it happens to have eight squirmy arms, two feeding tentacles, gigantic unblinking eyes, and a gnashing beak, it becomes the stuff of nightmares."
Jumbo Squid Attack Greenpeace Submarine
It's a Lovecraftian horror that resonates in the human psyche, though the giant squid are not aggressive against humans and typically feed on other squid and deep-sea fish.
It's likely that the giant squid served as the basis for centuries of sea monster reports. Ancient sea stories told of the fearsome Kraken, a huge many-tentacled beast, said to attack ships and sailors on the high seas (known to modern audiences in Liam Neeson's "Clash of the Titans" command to "Release the Kraken!").
The Kraken was first described in early Scandinavian mythology, a marine colossus so large that its body appeared as a series of small islands. Lured by the promise of fresh water and provisions, sailors would approach just before huge tentacles would rise out of the water and drag them to their doom (this legend was faithfully and dramatically depicted in the 2006 film "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest").
Aside from the occasional specimens recovered and preserved in museums, another important piece of the giant squid puzzle was found in and on sperm whales. Whalers would occasionally notice huge scars on whale skins indicating a battle with some sort of obviously huge and powerful animal.
Giant Squid Photos
When researchers found distinctive, partially digested squid parts (including the sharp beak and giant suckers) they realized that the whales sometimes feed upon the squid. Battles between these two marine goliaths have been depicted many times, including in an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History -- though those showing the squid as the aggressor are wrong.
As impressive as the giant squid is, there's an even larger species, the colossal squid, which has eyes the size of dinner plates. Much about the giant squid, including its ecology, reproduction, and social structure, remains a mystery. The largest giant squid specimen was estimated to be about 65 feet long, but the animal remained elusive until 2004 when Japanese zoologists filmed a giant squid at depth for the first time.
Though it's unlikely that the recent New Zealand specimen will offer any breakthroughs upon examination, it serves as a reminder of the amazing diversity in the natural world -- and provides a reliably terrifying film monster.