Colossal Squid Thawing; Hints at Even Bigger Beasts

Dave Hansford in Wellington, New Zealand
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2008
The big thaw has begun.

In preparation for dissection, scientists in New Zealand have begun the delicate two-day task of defrosting the biggest squid ever caught—a rare colossal squid, or Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. (Watch video.)

Already the squid is yielding clues to the mysterious species' habits and giant size. Colossal squid may grow even bigger than this record-breaking specimen, for example, and may be essentially invisible at depth, the researchers say.

The 1,091-pound (495-kilogram) squid has been frozen in a New Zealand lab since a fishing crew accidentally caught it near Antarctica in February 2007 (see photo of the squid's capture).

The researchers initially considered thawing the squid in a giant microwave oven.

They decided against it for fear of harming the creature's tissues, so instead the animal will soften up in a salty bath.

The colossal squid—one of six ever found—required two hoists to lower it into a saline tank at Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's national museum in Wellington.

Hitting a Snag

The team quickly realized that the 19- to 26-foot long (6- to 8-meter) squid left so little room for ice in the inspection tank that it would thaw too quickly, allowing the outer tissue to rot before the internal organs thawed.

In a further complication, the corpse is still entangled in the fishing net that captured it.

The hitch came despite a series of practice runs on a smaller colossal squid and two giant squid, which are also currently being examined.

The scientists added another ton of ice to the bath, along with 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of salt.

Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water, so the team hopes the saline solution will remain at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) while melting the block of freshwater ice surrounding the squid.

They will then allow the specimen's temperature to rise gradually over the next few days.

Once thawed, the team will treat the squid with preservative before examining it.

A few small tissue samples will be taken for DNA analysis, but the bulk of the examination will be done by endo-scope—a long, thin, flexible surgical tool commonly used by doctors to look at the insides of their patients' lungs and colons—to minimize any damage to the rare specimen.

The process will be viewable via live Webcasts. (New Zealand time is currently 16 hours ahead of U.S. eastern time, 11 hours ahead of London time.)

The Big Question

The team's first priority is to definitively determine the animal's sex.

The penis of a colossal squid is typically as long as six and a half feet (two meters). The apparent absence of such an unmissable member on this squid means that it is probably female, experts say.

Next the squid will be measured. Then its stomach contents and beak and other mouthparts will be examined.

At the moment, the creature's eyes are not visible. But the scientists predict they will be larger even than those of the giant squid, each of which measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) across.

Carol Diebel, Te Papa's natural environment director, said clues to the squid's habits are already revealing themselves, even though the animal is still partly frozen.

"From its size and from its color, I would presume that it's generally [found] at about 3,200 feet [1,000 meters]," she said.

"When it's alive, it's a deep pink color, and the red-light wavelength is the first to disappear at that depth"—so the predator would be essentially invisible in its natural environment.

Could Grow Even Bigger

The new specimen is probably not fully grown, Te Papa projects manager Chris Paulin said—meaning that even bigger colossal squid may be lurking in the deep.

"When we first examined colossal squid specimens, we predicted that they might grow to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms)," he said.

"This specimen shows that they can grow larger still, to maybe 1,600 pounds (750 kilograms)."

The species has an array of sharp swiveling hooks at the tips of its tentacles, which it wields against the wide range of prey found at depth in Antarctic waters.

Colossal squid are unrelated to the giant squid species, which instead have suckers lined with small teeth.

Colossal squid are "active predators of fish," Paulin said. "But at this size, they eat pretty much whatever they like."

Humans vs. Colossal Squid

Diebel, the Te Papa natural environment director, attributed a series of recent giant and colossal squid finds to an increase in Antarctic trawling, mostly for toothfish (a likely food of colossal squid as well)—often sold under the name "sea bass."

"We are now fishing waters that we never used to fish, at depths that we didn't used to reach," she said. "So we are now competing with the squid for its food."

Eventually the colossal squid will be displayed at Te Papa. Scientists will lay it out in a natural position in a preservative.

It will never be a "perfect" specimen, though—the squid's body still bears scars from the fishing net that snared it.

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