The Museum's Giant Squid

by AMNH on

From the Collections posts

For centuries, humans have been fascinated by giant squids, among the largest—and most elusive—living invertebrate species. Living far below the surface of the oceans, giant squids had rarely been seen alive—until now.

Last summer, the first video footage of a giant squid in its deepwater habitat was captured. Off a tiny Pacific island, a team including researchers Edith Widder and Tsunemi Kubodera dove in a submersible to film the animal; the video will soon be aired on American television.

The Museum has its own giant squid (Architeuthis kirkii), one of the few specimens housed in a museum in North America, says Curator Neil H. Landman, who studies fossil (and living) invertebrates in the Division of Paleontology.

Giant squid label
© AMNH/C. Chesek

The specimen was brought here, frozen, in 1998, after commercial fisherman accidentally caught it in a fishing net off the coast of New Zealand. The specimen is stored here in a large steel tank.

Giant Squid Specimen
Housed in a steel tank, the Museum's giant squid specimen is 25 feet long, including arms but not including tentacles.
 © AMNH/C. Chesek

Giant squids grow, perhaps, to nearly 60 feet long. Only colossal squids, which come from a different family, and live in Antarctic waters, are more massive.

All squid are cephalopods, a group of mollusks that also includes shelled Nautiluses, cuttlefish, and octopuses.

Mollusk hallway Evelyn Keller
The Museum's Evelyn Miles Keller Memorial Exhibit, on the first floor, includes amazing models of smaller squid and their cephalopod relatives, seen at right. 
 © AMNH/C. Chesek

Like all squids, giant squids each have eight arms and two longer tentacles for grasping prey. 

As invertebrates, they have no structural bones. Instead, a paddle-shaped internal support, called a gladius, helps them retain their form. The gladius is formed of chitin, a material also found in, for instance, insect exoskeletons. (A squid's horny beak, also formed of chitin, is found at the base of its prey-grabbing arms; the beak allows the animal to slice and dice fish to eat.)

The Museum’s specimen is a sexually mature male that measures 25 feet long, with eyes that are 6 inches across. (Like many other squid species, male giant squids are probably smaller than females.) 

The giant squid’s arms and tentacles are dotted with rows of sharp-toothed suckers, with which the animal can grab its prey.

giant squid tentacle
Toothed suckers on the tentacle of a giant squid
 © AMNH/C. Chesek

The suckers also help giant squid attempt to ward off predators such as deep-diving sperm whales. These whales often have scars that match the cookie-cutter-shaped suckers of a giant squid’s tentacles, evidence of a struggle between predator and prey.  

Sperm whale and squid diorama (HOL)
In the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, the diorama of a giant squid and a sperm whale sets a dramatic underwater scene.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Today, even the new documentary evidence of giant squids at sea won’t erase the mysteries associated with the species.

Old Image Ship Giant Squid
In 1861, French sailors on the ship Alecton sighted a giant squid, setting off a frenzy of interest in the animal and inspiring Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, first published in 1870. 

As Landman points out, scientists still don’t know how deeply giant squids dwell within the oceans, how many individuals there are, how many giant-squid species exist, how long they live, how fast they grow.

“In many ways,” he says, “the deep oceans are less well known than outer space.”