Marine biologists have been offered an exciting chance to study one of the ocean’s most elusive animals, after a group of Florida fishermen brought in a recently-deceased giant squid last week. The 25 foot-long specimen is now being carefully preserved at the Florida Museum of Natural History, where it will give researchers the opportunity to study the anatomy and genetic makeup of a species that has hardly ever been seen alive.
Recreational fishermen Robert Benz, Joey Asaro, and Paul Peroulakis found the squid drifting in the water about twelve miles off the Florida coast, and immediately realized they’d discovered something unusual. Though already near death, the tentacles of the enormous invertebrate were still moving slightly when they found it. The men managed to get the creature onto the back of their 23-foot boat, and took it in to shore.
“I thought we definitely need to bring it in, because no one’s going to believe us if we don’t,” said Benz. “I didn’t want to leave it out there and just let the sharks eat it.”
By the time University of Florida scientists arrived on the scene the squid was dead, but still in good enough shape to be extremely valuable for research. The researchers quickly put it on ice to preserve it, and took it to the natural history museum so the body can be preserved with chemicals. The preservation process is expected to take about two weeks, after which time scientists will examine the specimen to find out its age and sex, and analyze genetic date from the dead squid.
“We don’t really have a good handle on the biogeography of these critters, so this will add to that knowledge base,” said Roger Portell, an invertebrate paleontologist at the museum. “Because they are so rare, we have so few samples where we get a fresh specimen and can actually do genetic work.”
If the preservation process goes well, it may even be possible to place the squid on display where the public can see it.
At 25 feet long, the specimen found by the Florida fishermen is actually a rather “small” giant squid—individuals of its species can reach a length of up to 60 feet. Because they inhabit the deep ocean and are very secretive, the scientific study of giant squids was for decades confined to examining dead specimens washed up on beaches, sometimes in a partially decayed state like in the picture at left. Giant squids glimpsed by early sailors are also thought to have inspired myths of sea monsters.
In 2004 a team of Japanese scientists captured a giant squid on camera in its natural habitat for the first time ever, but it remains one of the least-studied large animals in the ocean. Marine biologists believe it is an active predator that hunts for prey in the chilly depths of the ocean, thousands of feet below the surface. The squids are themselves a source of food for deep-diving sperm whales, which have been found with scars from giant squid tentacles on their bodies.
The squid found off the Florida coast was probably dying of a natural cause when the fishermen ran across it. Based on the life cycles of other squid species, scientists believe giant squids only mate once in their lives and then die. The one found by Benz, Asaro, and Peroulakis may have just reproduced and reached the end of its natural lifespan.
Scientists who study marine invertebrates were pleased with how quickly the fishermen brought in the squid and notified authorities. “It’s so rare to get these specimens and they’re such deep-water animals that we don’t know much about how they live,” said John Slapcinsky of the Florida Museum of Natural History. “This specimen provides an excellent opportunity to learn things about these creatures we couldn’t find out any other way.”
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/vitenskapsmuseet/5375410538/