NPR - All Things Considered: Deep-Sea Squid Encounter

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New Gigantic Squid Spotted Worldwide
Long-Armed Squid Suggest Deep Seas Remain Unknown Territory

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This deep-sea squid suggests more unknown creatures may lurk in the oceans' depths. Photo: © 2001 MBARI

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Dec. 20, 2001 -- Now and then a biologist emerges from the wilderness with a new species of plant or insect to report. It's not often, though, that someone discovers a new animal that's as tall as a giraffe.

Today, scientists announce the discovery of something that even seasoned biologists say is truly bizarre: a squid that grows as long as 25 feet, and lives more than half a mile deep.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biologist Michael Vecchione knows his squid. His office is in the bowels of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Beyond the drawers of dinosaur teeth and human bones is the cephalopod room, filled with thousands of specimens of squid and octopi. One specimen, about the size of a mushroom, is called a big fin.

Scientists found it in the Pacific in 1995. It was weird -- no one had seen one before. Experts thought it was a baby squid of some kind. They gave it a scientific name and stuck it in a jar of alcohol, gone, but not forgotten.

For years, Vecchione wondered what the adult must look like. Then he got a phone call from a woman in Louisiana. She had acquired a video of a strange squid shot from a submersible deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

The squid in the video is no mushroom. "The arms are really really long, on this animal the estimate was over 20 feet long, much much longer than anything we've seen before," says Vecchione. "They also hold them in a very strange way. They have what's almost like an elbow in each of the arms. There's a bend fairly close to the body and then the really long spaghetti like projections coming off of that."

Vecchione suspects that the arms act like a spider web.

The squid have 10 arms, though two of them are technically called tentacles, and they appear to have suckers on part of the arms -- much like other squid. But it's another video of one of these squid that suggests the spider web comparison. The video shows a collision between a submersible and the squid.

"This particular animal happened to brush up against a submarine and the arms got stuck to it and the animal seemed to have trouble letting go." Vecchione thinks the arms are very sticky and used to trap food. The squid lets its arms hang underneath it and waits for small crustaceans to bump into them and stick, like insects sticking to a spider's web.

Vecchione tracked down eight videos of the creature, all from deep-water subs in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. They'd been filed away and never reported to squid experts.

The videos typically show a ghostly white animal against a deep blue background. It can move fast, but not by jetting water through its body like normal squid. Instead, it has enormous wings.

The wings are actually flexible fins, says Bruce Robison, a deep-sea biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

The fact that something this big has never before been seen doesn't surprise Robison.

"As you go deeper, often some of these ordinary kinds of animals can be transformed into different kinds of critters that can be a bit more exciting than their shallow water brethren."

The sightings in so many places encouraged Vecchione to describe the animal in this week's issue of Science magazine. It's not the giant squid that's known to inhabit the deep sea. Vecchione believes it might well be the adult version of big fin -- that tiny, mushroom-sized creature in the jar next to his office. Scientists will have to wait to positively identify the squid until a few are captured.

In Depth

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Other Resources

• Explore the National Museum of Natural History's online exhibit, In Search of Giant Squid.

• More about squid and other cephalopods from NMNH.

• Find out more about ongoing ocean exploration projects at the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site.