PICTURE: Giant Squid Caught Alive, Briefly, off U.S.

Giant squid caught alive (now dead) picture
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September 22, 2009—For the first time, a live giant squid—shown on the deck of a research ship on July 30—has been caught in the Gulf of Mexico (map), U.S. officials say. The deep-dwelling squid, however, died during the trip to the surface.

(See the first ever pictures of a living giant squid [2005] and learn about the first video of a live giant squid [2006].)

On July 30, during routine test runs for an upcoming whale study, the team dipped their giant net more than a third of a mile (a half kilometer) down and came up with something "really crazy," said Anthony Martinez, a marine mammal scientist with the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service.

Measuring about 19.5 feet (6 meters) long and 103 pounds (47 kilograms), the likely juvenile giant squid was alive when netted but didn't survive the ascent to the surface.

The squid's length indicates that it's probably a female and probably was immature, said Michael Vecchione, a squid expert at the Smithsonian Institution.

Adult giant squid are believed to reach about 60 feet (18 meters) in length. Along with their cousins, the colossal squid, giant squid have the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, measuring some 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter. These massive organs allow giant squid to detect objects in the lightless depths where most other animals would see nothing.

Like other squid species, they have eight arms and two longer feeding tentacles that help them bring food to their beaklike mouths. Their diet likely consists of fish, shrimp, and other squid, and some suggest giant squid might even attack and eat small whales.

Giant Squid Battle Sperm Whales in the Gulf?

Most captured giant squid—about one or two a year, all of them dead on arrival—are pulled up off Spain and New Zealand, where deep-water fishing is common, Vecchione said.

(Related giant squid picture: "whopper" washes ashore.)

The new giant squid discovery adds to evidence that a rich and in some cases bizarre variety of squid—including an alien-like squid with "elbows" recently found at an oil-and-gas drilling site—inhabits the Gulf of Mexico.

The newfound giant squid's main scientific significance is as confirmation that sperm whales found in the northern Gulf—often surprisingly near the heavily traveled shipping lanes at the mouth of the Mississippi River—have a local source of their main food.

Bits of giant squid had already been found in the stomachs of sperm whales and other predators from the Gulf of Mexico and nearby waters.

"Finding this specimen in the Gulf of Mexico in the area they were studying confirms the idea [of sperm whales] hanging around there because there's good food," Vecchione said.

Giant Squid Surprise

The research trawls that caught the giant squid about 130 miles (209 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast were a side project for a 60-day marine mammal survey by NOAA scientists, said NOAA's Martinez, who was chief scientist on expedition.

"We knew there was a possibility of catching a giant squid. But it was not something we were banking on," he said.

"We weren't planning on many trawls in the first place. We were really approaching it as a learning opportunity and didn't think we'd score anything really crazy while learning."

As a result, the crew "didn't have anything prepared ahead of time for storage of such a large specimen," Martinez said.

The team lined a big basket with garbage bags. The squid went into the innermost bag, and the whole thing went into the freezer.

Thanks to the MacGyver-esque maneuver, the giant squid may soon spill its secrets. Its DNA can be compared to that of other giant squid around the world, for one thing.

For another thing, the giant squid's little-known menu may become clearer, the Smithsonian's Vecchione said. "If we get a chance to open up the stomach and see what's in it, that can add a lot to" the limited knowledge of giant squid diet.

--AP

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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