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.