Giant Squid, Tall Tales and Truth
The New York Times, May 4, 2004
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
With a length up to 75 feet, the giant squid, Architeuthis, is the largest
invertebrate on earth. But it is also the most elusive. It has never been
seen alive in its natural habitat. As such, Architeuthis (pronounced
ark-uh-TOOTH-us) has something of a mythical reputation. There has been
speculation that the creatures live for decades, even a century, at depths
of several thousand feet.
"No one really knows," said Dr. Neil H. Landman of the American Museum of
Natural History. "In the ocean there are still mysteries, and this is one
But research by Dr. Landman and colleagues from the State University of
New York at Stony Brook and other institutions may help dispel some of the
myths. Architeuthis, they say, may not be so long in the tooth, and
reports of its depth may be greatly exaggerated.
The researchers studied one of the squid's smallest features, a bonelike
particle called a statolith that is not much larger than a grain of sand.
Statoliths, which are found in the squid's head and help it maintain
equilibrium, grow through the buildup of calcium carbonate in discrete
Dr. Landman analyzed isotopes of oxygen in statoliths from three southern
giant squid, Architeuthis sanctipauli, from the Pacific Ocean. Like all
specimens, these were caught in fishing nets or washed ashore. The
proportion of isotopes gives an indication of the water temperature the
squid lived in, and temperature can be related to depth.
In the analysis, reported in the journal Marine Biology, Dr. Landman found
that the squid lived at depths of 600 to 1,000 feet. While he noted that
those figures are not definitive, they are a far cry from 2,000 to 3,000
feet, as some scientists have thought.
The statoliths were also analyzed for carbon-14, a legacy of atmospheric
weapons tests. Carbon-14 in the Pacific increased from the 1950's to about
1980, then began a well-documented decline. By analyzing carbon-14 ratios,
the researchers were able to calculate an age for the squid: 14 years or
Normal squid reach full size in a matter of months ("They're the broiler
chickens of the sea," Dr. Landman said), so some scientists had thought
that giant squid might grow as fast.
Dr. Landman said he thought the giants add heft relative rapidly, though
not at the pace of their cousins. After all, he said, "it's hard to
imagine something growing that big so quickly."