Shelf Life 08: Voyage of the Giant Squid

For me, to look at it for the first time, it was...this mythical creature. I was face to face with the giant squid.

- Neil Landman, Curator, Division of Paleontology

The Stuff of Legend 

This episode of Shelf Life focuses on the very practical problem of transporting a rare giant squid specimen. But long before they were a quandary for customs officials, these mysterious cephalopods fueled folklore all over the world. They’re not alone—many storied beasts took shape around seeds of reality. While they may not breathe fire, heal disease, or crush ships, the animals that inspired their mythological counterparts are no less fantastic.

Release the Kraken

Denizens of the deep have enthralled humans for centuries. Greek myths pitted Hercules and Perseus against the serpentine sea monster Cetus. A 13th-century Icelandic saga told of the sea beast Hafgufa, which swallowed men and ships alike. In 1830, Alfred Lord Tennyson penned a sonnet about the kraken, a legendary Scandinavian sea creature so charismatic that 150 years later Hollywood decided to unleash it on ancient Greece in Clash of the Titans.

These marine monsters may have a basis in fact. Giant squid may not reach the size of the gigantic kraken, which was sometimes depicted demolishing boats with its massive tentacles, but they are formidable and impressive animals. The largest giant squid are thought to measure more than 40 feet from the tips of their tentacles to the end of their mantle, or body. That’s about the length of a school bus. 

Giant squid specimen floats in large container as two people in respirators begin to put a lid over it, with four more people looking on.
Giant squid at the Museum. 
P. Rollins/© AMNH

Sighting a squid as big as a bus is still a momentous feat. Photos and videos of these benthic behemoths in their natural habitat are rare, headline-making events. So imagine a sighting centuries ago: it would certainly have been exceptional fodder for any seafarer’s stories. And as those tales were shared, the creature likely grew with each retelling, eventually reaching titanic proportions. 

Illustration of a kraken emerging from the sea and attacking a ship, destroying the central sail as some sailors attempt to escape via rowboat.
Pierre Denys de Montfort’s Poulpe Colossal attacks a merchant ship. 1810. 

In his book The Search for the Giant Squid, marine biologist and Museum Research Associate Richard Ellis speculates that even Greek myths of the many-armed Scylla and the Hydra, one of Hercules’s foes, could have been inspired by glimpses of giant squid.

Since enormous cephalopods usually keep to mid- to deep-water habitats, the most common way to see a giant squid would have been to spot a dead or dying squid that had floated to the surface. These animals’ bodies—long, thin, and utterly strange—may have helped to give life to legends of serpentine sea monsters. 

Illustration of an hydra with curled tail, clawed feet and seven heads each wearing crowns.
Hydra, Gesner
D. Finnin/© AMNH

In Conrad Gesner’s 16th-century Historiae Animalium, for example, the hydra is depicted as having a trunk-like body with many heads, each one sitting on the end of a long, serpentine neck. “[It] is not impossible,” Ellis points out, “to see the ‘heads’ as arms, and the body as that of a large cephalopod.” Lose the feet, and Gesner’s hydra turns out to be a pretty decent depiction of a giant squid. 

Illustration of a giant squid half-emerging from the water, with tentacles underwater, in front of a ship.
Slide to reveal how a "sea serpent" sighting may have been inspired by a breaching of a giant squid. Sea serpent illustration: Erik Pontoppidan, 1752; giant squid illustration: Henry Lee, 1883.
Illustration of a long, armless sea monster emerging from water in front of a ship.
Slide to reveal how a "sea serpent" sighting may have been inspired by a breaching of a giant squid. Sea serpent illustration: Erik Pontoppidan, 1752; giant squid illustration: Henry Lee, 1883.

My, What Big Tooth You Have

The natural world provided plenty of inspiration for other legendary beasts, as the Museum’s 2008 exhibition Mythic Creatures detailed. 

Take the unicorn, an iconic creature in Western mythology that also has counterparts in China and Japan. Typically depicted in the West as white horses with long, slender horns rising from their heads, unicorns have inspired artwork for hundreds of years, from medieval tapestries to elementary-school notebooks. 

Close-up of tapestry image of a unicorn sitting in a circular gated enclosure among trees, flowers and leaves.
The Unicorn in Captivity
Metropolitan Museum of Art/37.80.6

In the Middle Ages, believers didn’t have to rely on second-hand stories to bolster their faith in unicorns. For a hefty sum, they could purchase long, white, spiraled horns, presented as proof of the wondrous creatures' existence. The majestic horns were said to have magical properties, including the power to cure disease. 

Narwhal's twisted tusk against dark background.
A narwhal tusk.
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

Unfortunately for medieval shoppers, these horns didn’t come from unicorns. They were harvested from creatures arguably even more fantastic: narwhals, Monodon monoceros, a species of whale. Narwhal males sport an extraordinarily long tusk, which is actually an overgrown left canine tooth that pierces the animal’s upper lip. Researchers have proposed several purposes for these impressive teeth—which can reach more than 9 feet in length—from an acoustic sounding stick to a seafloor spade. In 2014, dentist and Harvard School of Dental Medicine instructor Martin Nweeia, along with a team of colleagues, published a paper suggesting that this tooth is actually a sensory organ that may help males detect changes in salinity, temperature, pressure, and even pheromones released by females who are ready to mate.

Two narwhals emerging from the water and two more with their tusks only emerging from the water, all in a cluster.
NIST/G. Williams

Narwhal horns were not the only thing fueling belief in mythological equines. As Westerners began to expand their trade routes, real-life animals with notable horns on their heads were spotted in the far corners of the world. Around 1300, the Italian explorer Marco Polo recorded this sighting in Sumatra:"There are wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead... They have a head like a wild boar's and always carry it stooped towards the ground. They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at."

In retrospect, it seems clear that Polo had in fact encountered the Sumatran rhinoceros. The animals’ horns may have helped perpetuate the myth of the unicorn, though given the discrepancy between the unicorn’s idealized form and and the reality of the so-called “hairy rhinoceros,” one can forgive Polo his disappointment.

Dinosaurs and Dragons 

While specimens from living animals like the narwhal and rhino helped prop up the myth of the unicorn, some stories of mythological creatures were inspired by animals that had long been extinct. For instance, the fossilized skulls of dwarf elephants—which have huge nasal cavities in the center—are thought to have inspired stories of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant of Greek mythology. 

Skull specimen with large features, including space for two tusks.
Dwarf elephant skull
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

Big bones may have also given rise to one of the most enduring creatures of legend: the dragon. These enormous serpents or lizards, sometimes described as having wings and breathing fire, are found in tales across Europe and Asia, a tradition that spans Arthurian legend to contemporary film and television.

Illustration of a multi-colored dragon breathing fire.
The Mythical Creature Dragon, Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, 1806. 

Dragon legends were likely inspired, and fueled, by fossil finds. The Austrian town of Klagenfurt for years displayed the skull of an extinct woolly rhinoceros that was fabled to belong to a dragon slain by knights. And pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning may have been the original "Mother of Dragons," securing her reputation as a famed fossil hunter in the 1820s with discoveries of pterosaurs and a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus, a find made famous in the 1840 title The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons. 

Two pterosaur fossils hanging from the ceiling of the Museum's fourth floor Vertebrate Origins exhibit.
Pterosaurs in the Vertebrate Origins on the Museum's fourth floor. 
D. Finnin/© AMNH

Dragons have been a powerful presence in Chinese culture for centuries, and in traditional Chinese medicine powdered dragon bones are still prescribed as a cure for conditions ranging from madness to dysentery. Most of these “dragon bones,” though, are the fossils of extinct mammals, unearthed from China’s many rich fossil beds. 

Person in a field holding a small lizard in his right hand close up to their face.
Smaug gigantus is a newly-reclassified giant girdled lizard from South Africa. 
E. Stanley/© AMNH

The dragon continues to loom large in popular culture, at times inspiring a curious reversal: real species named in honor of legendary monsters. In 2011, while working on his Ph.D. at the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, biologist Ed Stanley named a genus of girdled lizards found in South Africa’s Drakensberg (that’s Dragon Mountain) range after Smaug, the terrifying, treasure-hoarding dragon of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Stanley says the homage was as much to the author—Tolkien was born in South Africa—as to the fabled beast, but the end result is the same: the storied Smaug is now a real-world lizard.