"Colossal Squid" Revives Legends of Sea Monsters

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Sea Monsters

Some of the earliest tales about huge, tentacled sea monsters date back to the 12th century when Norwegian seafarers described an awesome beast called a Kraken.

By the 18th century the Kraken still had a fearsome reputation. In The Natural History of Norway, the Bishop of Bergen likened it to a "floating island," adding, "It seems these are the creature's arms, and, it is said, if they were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war [a ship], they would pull it down to the bottom."

Over time the reputed size of these "monsters" was scaled down considerably, but stories persisted. An alleged encounter between a giant squid and a French naval vessel was the basis for Jules Verne's "squid of colossal dimensions" which was featured in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

There is also an account of sailors being attacked by a giant squid after their ship sunk during the Second World War. At least one sailor was supposedly eaten. And even this year, French yachtsmen taking part in the appropriately named Jules Verne Trophy reported that a 26-foot-long (8-meter) squid clamped itself to their boat.

An early description of what is thought to be Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni appeared in an article entitled Hunting Sea Monsters in 1953. It was, Gilbert Voss wrote, "a squid that could qualify in the most lurid deep-sea drama."

There is some truth to this observation. Whalers who once worked the southern oceans were well aware of "deep-sea dramas" played out between colossal squid and sperm whales which fed in Antarctic waters. The whalers often discovered giant squid beaks inside the stomachs of these whales.

Professor Paul Rodhouse, head of biological sciences at the British Antarctic Survey, says whalers also noted deep scars and circular marks around the heads of their quarry.

"It's certain these were caused by the suckers and hooks of big squid," he said. "The whales would suffer quite a lot of damage in subduing Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni."

Whale Stories

However, Rodhouse is quick to scotch stories about such squid killing and even eating sperm whales.

"Whalers could see the damage these squid caused so it was well known what was going on, but the stories got elaborated and expanded on," he said. "The only sperm whales that go into Antarctic waters to feed on these creatures are the large bulls. These are very powerful predators and my guess is they would be able to capture even the biggest squid."

Richard Ellis also believes such stories have been blown out of proportion.

"This creature, like Architeuthis, is probably a deep-water dweller," he said. "What earthly—or oceanic—reason would a squid have for attacking a ship? I think both these squid are fish-eaters. The long tentacles of Architeuthis and the hooks of Mesonychoteuthis support this contention, and do not indicate any predilection to attack whales, people or ships."

Rodhouse is more concerned about the colossal squid than the fate of humans who may encounter one. In particular, he is worried about the recent influx of fishing vessels into Antarctic waters that target Patagonian toothfish. He says the fish is a major prey species for colossal squid.

"The fish can grow to over 2 meters (6 feet) but it's being overfished in many parts of the southern ocean," he said. "Toothfish and these squid form part of a deep water ecosystem that we know virtually nothing about—yet were are already exploiting it with commercial fisheries."

At least the colossal squid isn't likely to join toothfish on the seafood menu. Calamari as big as car tires might sound an appetizing idea, but jumbo-sized squid usually contain high levels of ammonia and their meat is said to taste like floor cleaner.

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