The colossal squid is a shy sort of predator. It's never been seen alive, preferring to hang out at depths of 1 km or more in the icy blackness of Antarctic waters, where it picks out its prey with eyes bigger than a human head, and seizes it with tentacles tipped with up to 25 rotating hooks that can swivel 360 degrees. Yet this week, one Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni finally entered the spotlight, undergoing a very public autopsy carried out in New Zealand and broadcast around the world online.
The 495-kg creature has been on ice at Wellington's Te Papa Museum since a fishing crew hauled it aboard, snagged on one of its long lines in the Ross Sea in February 2007. But if it's tough work catching a colossal squid, it's even harder to thaw itas the international team of squid scientists assembled to examine it have found. This week, followed by a documentary film crew and web audience of several thousand, they clambered into a tank of salty, icy water with the squid to gently tease its tentacles and body into shape. After waiting so long to get close to such a prize, the scientists had a tight deadlinethe tissue is so fragile that it needed to be preserved in formalin after samples were taken. But Te Papa's director of natural environment, Carol Diebel, says even with limited study time the team was thrilled: "They've already got so much more out of this than they expected."
While another species, the giant squid, has been studied before, the even larger colossal squid is little known. First reported in 1925, only a handful of specimens have ever been recovered from the Antarctic depths. Of those, most have been partial remains found in whale stomachs. This catch, a female around 10m long, (a male has never been found) is the biggest intact colossal squid ever collectedand public and scientific interest from around the world, says Diebel, has been astonishing. The Te Papa website logged more than 200,000 hits this week, and the museum's first such webcast attracted an audience from more than 180 countries. "I think people love anything very large, very rare and from an environment that is such a mystery," she says.
First to be examined were the eyesat 27cm in diameter, the biggest in the animal world. The Te Papa team also discovered a luminous organ on the underlid, which, they guess, may be used to spotlight prey in the pitch-black depths. While the squid's skin is "softer than a kitty's," as Diebel puts it, this is a species with plenty of weaponry: a powerful, horny beak and those hooks on the tips of its massive tentacles. "Imagine being attacked in the dark by something with a giant beak and arms covered in sharp hooks like coat hanger hooks, with the ramming ability of a bull," says Mark Norman, a cephalopod expert and senior curator of mollusks at Australia's Museum Victoria. While Norman dismisses theories about colossal squids being able to take on the mighty sperm whales that roam Antarctic waters, there's no doubt "it's a fantastic predator." Like other squid species, the colossal squid appears to have blue blood, a tongue covered in teeth and an esophagus which drains through the middle of its doughnut-shaped brain. And it is agile enough, Norman suspects, to elude the nets and cameras of scientists like him who have long scoured the Southern Ocean searching for such aquatic treasures.
Despite this week's insights, there's still plenty of mystery surrounding the colossal squid. And new clues: while the beak of Te Papa's specimen is around 42mm long, the longest ever found, discovered in the stomach of a sperm whale, was 49mm. Which means, in the world of heavyweight cephalopods, there's bigger and better to come.