Giant Squid Lore and Legends Date Back Centuries

The giant squid's imposing size and fearsome appearance has long cast them as predatory monsters in human imaginations and fictional depictions.

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.

What has eight arms with hundreds of suckers, eyes the size of grapefruit and a razor-sharp beak? A giant squid! A team of scientists and the Discovery Channel shot footage of this notoriously elusive creature in action. Click ahead for more squidly fun.

Giant squid have captured, and terrified, the seafaring imagination for centuries. This illustration recreates a giant squid observed off Tenerife in November of 1861.

This giant squid was collected by NOAA researchers off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The largest invertebrate on Earth, the giant squid is just plain big -- the largest ever found was 59 feet (18 meters) long.

The only squid bigger than a giant is the colossal squid. Captain John Bennett examines the world's first intact adult male colossal squid in 2007 in the Ross Sea, near Antarctica. The squid was about 33 feet (10 meters) long. Check out those suckers!

These two female giant squid were found off Luarca, Spain. For an idea of the size of these creatures, note the gloved hand in the upper-left.

Alien autopsy? Nope. It's one of the Luarca squid from the previous slide, undergoing an examination by Spanish scientists.

Here's a giant squid measuring about 28 feet (9 meters), on display at London's Natural History Museum. This creature was caught in March of 2004, at a depth of 722 feet (220 meters), off the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

A cat strolls past a giant squid in January 2005 in Newport Beach, Calif. That winter hundreds of 3- to 4-foot-long (0.9 to 1.2 meter) squid washed up along the Southern California coast. One theory holds that they ran ashore while chasing grunion.

This is another shot of a squid from the Newport Beach, Calif. wash-up. Giant squid eyes look so human because they’re structured much like human eyes are.

It may look big in the photo, but this larval squid is just 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) long and was photographed through a microscope by Russ Hopcroft, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The humboldt, or jumbo, squid is a carnivorous marine invertebrate with a lifespan of only 1-2 years. But it makes hay while the sun shines on its short life: In that time, it can grow to 4 feet (1.2 meters) long.

We may know it better as calamari, the familiar appetizer, but its proper name is common market squid. This adult market squid was photographed off La Jolla Shores Beach in La Jolla, Calif.

This adult jumbo squid was caught near the Channel Islands by a squid jig aboard an NOAA research ship in 2007. Its tentacles are wrapped around the jig that was used to catch it, which worked by attracting the squid to its glowing yellow plastic.

This is a closer look at the 2007 Channel Islands squid. Its telltale large eyes allow the creature to see in the very low light that permeates its deep underwater habitat.

A squid's razor-sharp beak is a merciless weapon against its prey, allowing it to chomp tasty bites out of its victims. Here we see a close-up of a Caribbean reef squid's beak.

Giant squid aren't without enemies. They're a preferred meal for sperm whales. The whale usually wins, but the giant squid doesn't go down without a fight. Scientists know this because of squid sucker markings, like these, found on dead whale skin.