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Colossal Squid May Be Microwaved

Dave Hansford
for National Geographic News
March 23, 2007
 
A colossal squid, the stuff of ancient mariners' nightmares, is giving modern scientists a few headaches.

Caught in the Antarctic by fishers in February, the half-ton animal is likely the largest known colossal squid—and it may be headed for a giant microwave oven.

The colossal squid was frozen after capture to preserve it for study. But now thawing out its massive bulk poses a huge problem for Steve O'Shea, the Auckland University of Technology's resident squid expert, who is involved with the project.

"Our major concern is how to defrost this animal quickly," he says. "Conventional defrosting techniques on an animal this size would take [more than] four days."

The squid's mantle—the wide part of the body above the tentacles—is much harder than the soft tissue of the tentacles, posing a real danger of damage if the creature is simply left to thaw out naturally.

"Some tissues would have decomposed whilst the center of the animal would remain frozen," O'Shea said.

"Crazy"

New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, invited the public to suggest solutions, prompting more than 400 responses.

Top of the list so far is the idea of using an industrial microwave machine, such as those used to dry timber.

O'Shea said museum scientists are considering the giant-microwave option.

But John Ablett, mollusk curator at England's Natural History Museum, said the idea is "crazy."

"The skin in particular is very soft and easily torn," he said. Microwaving would pose "a big risk of damage to the specimen."

Two years ago Ablett faced a similar problem with a giant squid that is now on display at the London museum.

Museum staff circulated warm water around the harder mantle while packing ice around the softer arms, he said. The squid thawed "without any serious degradation."

Swiveling Hooks

Shorter but heavier than the giant squid, the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has been estimated to measure between 39 and 46 feet (12 and 14 meters). The newfound specimen weighs in at 1,091 pounds (495 kilograms), according to the latest estimate.

Armed with swiveling hooks on their suckers and hubcap-size eyes, these deep-sea dwellers are exquisitely armed for hunting their assumed quarry: large fish and other squid species.

Adult colossal squid are themselves preyed on by sperm whales and sharks.

(Related: "Jumbo Squid, Sperm Whale Study Reveals How the Giant Creatures Feed, Hunt" [March 12, 2007].)

The species wasn't discovered until 1925, and only from tentacles found in a whale's stomach. Russian fishers caught the first complete specimen in 1981.

Since then only a few colossal squid have been captured, but the animals all were dead before they were hauled aboard.

Not to Be Dissected

Regardless of how it is defrosted, the colossal squid in New Zealand will not be dissected, said O'Shea, of the Auckland University of Technology.

"The specimen is too priceless."

"There are a lot of noninvasive techniques we can use to extract scientific data," O'Shea said, "and that is what we are working on."

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