What's the deal with the "colossal squid?"

Recently I found out that everyone’s favorite sperm whale antagonist, the giant squid, is apparently no longer considered the giantest squid out there. Evidently an even more fearsome mollusc was discovered in Antarctic waters back in March of 2003, and was promptly dubbed the “colossal squid” in a rather transparent display of one-upsmanship. Somehow I missed the news at the time, so I’ve been trying to catch up on the newly crowned king of the cephalopods, Mesonchyoteuthis hamiltoni. By all accounts it’s a veritable juggernaut of invertebrate savagery, with vicious swiveling hooks on its tentacles and huge photophores along the body, none of which are available options on your standard model Architeuthis. It would seem that after centuries of terrorizing sailors, the giant squid is suddenly an also-ran.

However… while perusing the various articles on the colossal squid, I began to get a sense that something was subtly awry. Virtually all the quoted remarks on the extraordinary qualities of *Mesonchyoteuthis * were courtesy of Dr. Steve O’Shea of the Auckland University of Technology, who was the researcher in charge of examining the new specimen and who is also an authority on the giant squid. Regarding this new discovery, Dr. O’Shea told the BBC, “Giant squid is no longer the largest squid that’s out there. We’ve got something that’s even larger, and not just larger but an order of magnitude meaner.”

This remark brought a curious fact to my attention: in the BBC interview (linked to below), Dr. O’Shea made much of the fact that the mantle (or “head”) length of the colossal squid (2.5 m) is greater than the mantle length of the giant squid (2.25 m). Yet in that same article, nowhere does he directly state the total body length of the colossal squid. After doing a little digging, I discovered an amazing fact: the total length of the “colossal squid” is approximately 20 feet. In contrast, the largest generally accepted measurement of a giant squid specimen is 57 feet. To my mind, this fact sort of undercuts the whole “the colossal squid is the biggest squid ever” premise.

Researching further, I learned that Dr. O’Shea accounts for this uncomfortable situation in two ways: firstly, he discards all measurements of giant squid that exceed the maximum recorded size of the species found in New Zealand waters. The 57-foot specimen is right out, of course, as are accounts from Newfoundland and Mauritius that cite mantle lengths of 4 to 6 meters. In addition, he advances his conviction that all giant squid represent a single globally distributed species that never gets any bigger than the New Zealand specimens: “To perpetuate myths of more than one species of Architeuthis (up to 20 species have been reported), lengths of 60 feet and weights of up to a ton is a disservice to science.”

Using these criteria, he arrives at a mantle length of 2.25 m and a total length of 37 feet for Architeuthis . Note that this is still nearly twice as large as the biggest Mesonchyoteuthis specimen on record.

However Dr. O’Shea told the BBC that, in his opinion, the recovered Mesonchyoteuthis specimen was still a juvenile, and that the species could concievably grow to a mantle length of 4.0 m. The BBC article provided no explanation for this theory, but I was able to track down an abstract (linked to below) in which Dr. O’Shea attempts to justify his position. Evidently he believes that certain squid beaks recovered from the stomach contents of sperm whales are those of mature Mesonchyoteuthis, and he interprets their size as indicating a maximum mantle length of 4.0 m. This is especially interesting, because in the very same article he states that no mature Mesonchyoteuthis have ever been recovered, so it’s anyone’s guess how he knows how big they can get from looking at their beaks. It would be one thing if there were a large number of juvenile specimens that exhibited a predictable increase in beak size over time, but from all the information I have been able to find, there has been exactly ONE other intact Mesonchyoteuthis specimen ever recovered.

Even more remarkably, in this article (which was apparently last updated two months after the new specimen was found-- and a month after the BBC interview in which he introduced the whole “juvenile colossal squid” idea), Dr. O’Shea indicates that he still hasn’t gotten around to comparing the beaks: “Should the beaks from sperm whale stomach contents be appreciably larger than those from the present carcass, then we can say that the animal does attain a considerably larger size. If not then it would appear that the reputed size that this animal attains has again been exaggerated, as it has for over a century with Architeuthis.” I was unable to locate the results of the comparison, or indeed if it was ever made.

I wasn’t sure which forum would be most appropriate for this screed, and the mods are certainly welcome to relocate it to wherever it is deemed appropriate. I’d certainly like to know what the current zoological consensus is regarding the so-called “colossal squid.” However, my ongoing curiosity about the animal itself has gradually been overshadowed by my suspicion that this entire affair is a monument to crap science. I’ve come across several biology sites lately stating flat out that the “colossal squid” is the largest squid.

Am I just reading this material completely wrong (a real possibility, I freely admit), or does none of it make any real sense at all? Dr. O’Shea seems to be quite well regarded in his field, and he certainly has my apologies if my impression of his ludicrously sensationalist work on this subject is completely off base. Perhaps someone here can provide some updated information on the current state of squid research that would shed light on this issue.

Some useful links:

The original BBC article. Enjoy the inaccurate and completely meaningless size comparison graphic, particularly the way in which the “colossal squid” image looks absolutely nothing like the specimen in the photo, and a great deal like the “giant squid” image inverted and enlarged slightly. Also of interest is the fact that Dr. O’Shea’s research team freely admits to coining the term “colossal squid” as a sexier alternative to the name “Antarctic cranch squid” that Mesonchyoteuthis hamiltoni has been identified with since it was first described in 1925. Which name do you think is likely to garner more headlines?
Giant Squid and Colossal Squid Fact Sheet: Courtesy of Dr. Steve O’Shea. Highlights:

–Fig. 7 [Architeuthis dux] “Maximum length 13 meters (37 feet)”

–[Mesonchyoteuthis hamiltoni] “Estimated mantle length: 2—4m; total length to 30 feet.”

–“Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni (Fig. 8) No mature Mesonychoteuthis is known. Based on the size of beaks recovered from sperm whale stomach contents it is estimated that it attains a mantle length of 2—4 m, which would render it considerably larger than Architeuthis (Fig. 8).”

If there are any doubters left after all this, they have only to consult Fig. 8, where it is clearly depicted how much bigger the 30-foot colossal squid is than the 37-foot giant squid. Don’t bother looking for a scale indicator; it is in another dimension.

Don’t ask me what the Giant Warty Squid has to do with any of this.

I can honestly say that you put more work into that post than the last 2 papers I turned in for grad school combined.

But interesting nonetheless, kudos. And… Yeah, sounds like the giant squid is getting shortchanged.

Yeah, I suppose my OP did get a little out of control there. Originally it wasn’t very much longer than the thread title itself, a request for updated information regarding the vital stats for Mesonchyoteuthis. However, it occurred to me that any responses might simply direct me back to the original pronouncements of Dr. O’Shea, which wouldn’t be too surprising since he seemed to be the only researcher aggressively promoting the “colossal squid” to the press. Instead of replying piecemeal to anyone citing Dr. O’Shea, I thought it would be more straightforward to summarize my concerns up front.

I’d like to find out if any of Dr. O’Shea’s claims have been addressed by other researchers in the two years since this specimen was recovered, and if there was ultimately any actual significance to the find-- or whether, as it appears to me, it was all just an unfortunate example of dubious science and poor journalism. I was hoping that some well-informed molluscophile might be able to give me the skinny on the whole strange affair.

Thanks for the kind words. I hope grad school is going okay for you. Sadly, I never made it that far myself; although I’m deeply interested in the biological sciences (as might be inferred from the above), my catastrophic innumeracy kept me from mastering the requisite higher math classes.

Of course, most of the math problems were significantly more difficult than: *“True or False: a 30-foot squid is bigger than a 37-foot squid.” * If I’d only attended the Auckland University of Technology, I might have my degree today. :smiley:

Interesting Terrifel, I remember that article.

There is tons of bad science published by the media. You might find this intereting:

Hardly. One of the most interesting GQ OPs we’ve had in a quite.

Not that I have anything useful to add, mind you.

Righto. Write an admissions letter full of clauses like that, and you’ll be in like buttah.

Well it seems as if Dr O’Shea has come to some phenomenal conclusions from very little evidence and disregarding established facts.

As a neurologist once told me when I heard on television about a recent “miracle” cure for MS, she said “Doctors shouldn’t ‘publish’ on the six o’clock news”.

Nor do I, not being in the habit of browsing the Squid Journals. And my invertebrate colleagues (the ones who study invertebrates, that is) specialize in echinoderms, snails, corals, and sponges, and so probably won’t be much use. At least we will know who to turn to in the future in case we get a Giant Squid question in the Mailbag. :wink:

At the risk of adding further to the lack of help on this subject, let me say that I am in awe of anyone who can compose the phrase

Thank you OH so much for that!

Altho’ I’m at a loss as to what a photophore might be.

It’s a bioluminescent organ.

You might ask the snail guys, I suppose… They’re at least the same phylum.

And I, too, wholeheartedly endorse this pre-emptive ignorance fighting. It’s quite a feat to construct such a tour de force OP before anyone less educated had a chance to ask the question.

Terrifel, I take it you’ve seen this profile of O’Shea from the New Yorker last year? Though it only glancingly mentions “colossal” squid, concentrating instead on his (quixotic?) hopes of raising a giant one in captivity starting from a tiny baby one.

Bonzer: no, as a matter of fact I hadn’t seen that article; thanks for pointing it out! I think it’s extremely enlightening that in David Grann’s extensive Feb. 2004 interview, Dr. O’Shea apparently declined to call any attention to the “colossal squid” specimen that he had examined less than a year earlier. Given that the article dwells so extensively on the huge size and mysterious habits of the giant squid, it’s curious that Dr. O’Shea didn’t bother to repeat his assertion that “Giant squid is no longer the largest squid that’s out there. We’ve got something that’s even larger, and not just larger but an order of magnitude meaner.” I think it’s probably safe to infer from this omission that further studies of beak size, etc. failed to support any of his original claims.

It’s also instructive, in light of Dr. O’Shea’s initial remarks to the BBC about the Mesonchyoteuthis specimen, to compare his quoted account of his first exposure to a giant squid specimen: “Before long, the press got wind of it, and they started calling and asking me all these questions, and I didn’t know anything about the giant squid. I spouted a bunch of nonsense[.]" Quite an interesting confession, if you ask me. Comically, later in the article O’Shea laments the fact that the study of Architeuthis is burdened by myths and inaccuracies. “We have to move beyond this mythical monster and see it as it is,” O’Shea said. “Isn’t that enough?” If I’d read this article first, I may have never even bothered to ask if his evaluation of Mesonchyoteuthis had any merit.

Perhaps I’m just being unreasonably suspicious at this point, but something about the climax of the *New Yorker * article seems just a mite convenient to me. After days of fruitless searching, a single tiny squid specimen is recovered well after midnight, shown to the reporter on hand, breathlessly identified as a giant squid larva, and then mysteriously vanishes moments later. A cynical person might suggest that this chain of events has a certain sleight-of-hand quality about it…

Dr. O’Shea seems to be quite a charming and charismatic fellow when the press is around, and he does appear to have a genuine passion for the subject. Studying the giant squid by capturing a larval specimen actually seems to me to be a very reasonable idea, and I wish him luck in the endeavor. If he does manage to maintain a live Architeuthis specimen in captivity, he will certainly have earned a unique place of honor in the field of invertebrate biology.

Here’s a thread I started on this very topic. Oh, I loves me some colossal (or just giant) squid!

Colossal squid found in Antarctic

Sounds just like an old Chevy my father once owned. I always wondered what happened to it…

Absolutely not. Other than that, nothing of substance to add here, but an additional question:

I know that old sea tales referred to a “Kraken”. Is this considered nowadays to be the giant squid, or are these tales discredited as myths?

Oh, lord… From a New Zealand Herald article linked to in Beadalin’s thread:

Which would be very impressive, except that by Dr. O’Shea’s own admission, the specimen being studied didn’t have any eyes.

I’m now wondering if Dr. O’Shea has ever made a single verifiably accurate statement regarding the Antarctic cranch squid. In fact, I’m starting to doubt that squid even exist at all.

You know what? Although this forum may not be the conventional scientific avenue for such an announcement, I’d like to formally nominate my pet ferret Mork as the world’s largest squid. Ferrets have traditionally been classed as vertebrate mammals; however, I see no need to consider the possibly apocryphal data of ferret specimens found outside my house. Granted, Mork only measures 14 inches in length, but I believe that he may only be a larva. As such, he is significantly larger than the near-microscopic larva of the giant squid. Also, it is well known that the size of giant squid can be distorted post-mortem, so it seems prudent to limit our comparison to actual living mature giant squid specimens (of which, unfortunately, none have ever been accurately measured). Based on all the hard evidence, then, it seems clear that the ferret could well achieve a mature size far greater than any other species of marine invertebrate. Therefore, until new information becomes available, I propose that the name “ferret” be replaced by the more descriptive name “gargantuan ultrasquid.”


In his 1998 book The Search for the Giant Squid, author Richard Ellis makes a pretty good case for the idea; Chapter Two of the book (“Is the Sea Monster a Giant Squid?”) contains a fascinating capsule summary of the similarities between Architeuthis and descritions of various mythical sea beasts. Kraken is a Norwegian term, and giant squid have often been recovered from the waters around Norway, so it’s not too much of a stretch to say that they were probably one and the same. Interestingly, “kraken” is actually plural, so when your longboat is attacked by only one, it’s more accurate to cry out in terror, “Krake! Krake!”

Ellis’ book also briefly discusses the Antarctic cranch squid, known to later generations as the terrifying “colossal squid” of New Zealand folklore. There’s a nice photo of an intact specimen in Chapter 7.

As an aside, Ellis’ book is also where I first read about the renowned Dr. Steve O’Shea, squid expert extraordinaire. The history of the giant squid, alas, is full of misinformation.

Come on, don’t leave us hanging here…

Great post by the way, I’m a sucker (get it :slight_smile: ) for any squid documentary that comes on Discovery channel. They aren’t quite as cute as cuttlefish though.

In a similar vein, did you see the article about the “giant chilean octopus”?


When I saw it I thought the remains of Robert Maxwell had finally washed ashore.