Our stories of sea monsters are disproportionally populated with squid. The kraken — a creature that we’ve never really defined or understood — is usually the cephalopod in question. Many of us would jump from kraken right to giant squid, but there is something in the sea much bigger: a colossal squid.
Only two specimens of colossal squid have been collected that were intact enough for study. They were both caught by a single fisherman in Antarctica on a long line dredging the depths. This lucky angler donated the second of these specimens for scientific study and display to the Museum of New Zealand at Te Papa. You can join squid scientists from yesterday’s partial dissection — teuthologists they call themselves (after the giant squid genus architeuthis) — as they measure and dissect the whole animal below:
Jump to 2:10:00 to see the beak reveal and 1:48:00 to see the eye dissection!
Much of the video consists of waiting for the squid to thaw. After capture, the colossal squid above was frozen solid for transfer to the museum. But before being rubberized by a pool of chemicals readying the specimen for display, the scientists had to measure the arms, its gigantic eyes, and its beak.
This colossal squid was caught in the depths off Antarctica. It weighed a massive 400-500 kilograms (800-1000 pounds) and stretched 4-5 meters (13-16 feet). That’s a lot of calamari. Colossal squid aren’t nearly as long as the giant squids, but they are much more massive, as evidenced by its incredible beak.
The colossal squid’s beak is so sharp and muscled because of how small it needs to make the food. Although the squid itself is huge, the tube that the food has to pass through for digestion — which runs through its brain, by the way — is thinner than your thumb. Before any food gets to be jettisoned back into the black expanse of the deep sea, the colossal squid has to turn meter-long fish into tiny pulp.
Colossal squid beaks are almost all we ever find of the animals, and we only find those by proxy…usually via sperm whale stomachs. Based on how many beaks we find in whales’ giant stomachs, we know that there must be a large population of (very large, obviously) colossal squid slipping under the seas.
Aside from the beak, there isn’t much to a colossal squid that is solid. That makes it hard to age the animal. However, you can get a rough estimate of colossal squid age by looking inside its eyes.
Crack the lens of a colossal squid eye in two and you’ll see what look like rings. Scientists can use these rings to get an estimate of the creature’s age, like a tree but with toothed and barbed tentacles. Oh yeah, colossal squid have those.
The technical name for colossal squid is Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Mesonychoteuthis denotes the fact that colossal squid have hooked suckers in the middle of their arms. Hamiltoni means the species was first described by some dude named Hamilton.
So far, this is the second intact colossal squid specimen that the Museum of New Zealand has hosted, and 4.5 million people have come through to see it. Having watched the whole dissection above, I totally understand the fascination.
Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: Museum of New Zealand at Te Papa