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Giant Squid Washes Ashore In Tasmania

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
July 26, 2002
 
Earlier this week the largest invertebrate on Earth, an animal that has never before been seen in its native habitat, washed up on the chilly eastern shores of Tasmania, Australia. The giant squid, an adult female, bore the marks of a torrid sexual affair. Sucker marks decorated her neck, and the top of her head bore a nip, possibly from a male's beak. Sperm samples suggest that she may have mated nearby.

"This is very exciting, particularly because this specimen is so incredibly fresh," said David Pemberton, senior curator of zoology at The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in the state capital, Hobart, who is supervising the squid's investigation.

The squid weighs about 550 pounds (250 kilograms) and was found in two pieces on Seven Mile Beach. Though her longest tentacles have been lost, estimates based on her remaining arms suggest she would have been around 50 feet—a little larger than the average giant squid, Architeuthis dux, found to date. She is not, however, a new species.

Though the actual specimen is cause for celebration, it is the possibility of a mating ground nearby that Pemberton finds truly tantalizing. This female squid washed up on July 20. Two others have washed ashore in the same general area in the last 16 years—the first on July 19, 1986 and the second on July 20, 1991.

A Breeding Ground

"That's spooky," said Pemberton, though he offered a possible explanation: The giant squid may have a breeding ground in nearby Storm Bay that they visit annually. Cuttlefish and arrow squid, for example, gather each year in Storm Bay in September and March respectively for "synchronized breeding." Maybe giant squid do the same.

There are indications that this giant squid had recently mated. Scientists found sperm deposits under her mantle—where sperm is stored before fertilizing the eggs.

But, cautioned Clyde Roper, a teuthologist (squid specialist) at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., studies of other squid have revealed that sperm packets or "spermatophores" can remain viable for weeks and sometimes months after mating. So there is no guarantee that the meeting of the sexes took place nearby, or even recently.

Regardless, "Tasmania is turning out to be a hot spot for giant squid," said Pemberton. And that's good news for squid seekers. Roper concurred. "Actually, the whole region—the band of ocean stretching from New Zealand's South Island to Tasmania and into the waters south of Australia—is a hot zone," said Roper, who has led three expeditions since 1996 to hunt for Architeuthis.

In the last 20 years, more than 100 giant squid have been hauled up by vessels in the waters off the coast of New Zealand's South Island, and Roper estimated that around 35 specimens have been found in south Australian waters.

A Creature of Mythic Proportions

What little is known about the giant squid is based on the mangled remains of dead animals caught in fishermen's nets, decayed specimens washed ashore, and the indigestible giant squid beaks found in the stomachs of sperm whales—a natural predator, and one of the few animals large enough to tackle the giant squid. Given this, every new specimen is regarded as a blessing from Neptune.

The giant squid has always enjoyed a reputation of mythic proportions. The notorious squid in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was surely based on the giant squid: "It was a squid of colossal dimensions, fully eight meters long…It gazed with enormous, staring eyes…Its eight arms…like the serpentine hair of the Furies…The monster's mouth—a beak made of horn and shaped like that of a parrot…Its tongue…armed with several rows of sharp teeth…What a freak of nature! A bird's beak on a mollusk!"

Search for the Giant Squid

Mesmerized by such descriptions the scientists have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to find the haunts of the elusive creature.

In 1996 during an expedition to the Azores scientists attached a "Crittercam"—a specially designed video camera invented at National Geographic—to a sperm whale, hoping that the whale would guide them to the squid. The second expedition in 1997 was conducted in the Kaikoura Canyon in New Zealand—a spot where immature male sperm whales hang out and eat giant squid until they are ready to command a harem. During this expedition the Crittercam was mounted on the nose of an autonomous unmanned vehicle that captured some spectacular whale behavior, but no squid. In 1999 Kaikoura Canyon was again the target of another mission, this one with a deep-sea submersible that Roper piloted to search for the squid.

"It is definitely frustrating, because I would love to find Architeuthis and film it," said Roper. "But it's not surprising. Over 99 percent of the living space on Earth is in the oceans and we would have had to be phenomenally lucky to find it."

"This is part of a much bigger quest. It is not about instant gratification. It is exciting that there are still these mysteries to be probed and explored," Roper said.

As for the giant squid that washed ashore this week, it's unclear how she died. Pemberton said she appeared plump and strong with no marks from fishing gear or propellers. But, he added, giant squid have relatively short lifespans—about five years. "Her time may simply have been up."

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