Nice to meet you, giant squid, but it might already be time to move on to more umm, colossal things.
Earlier this week, a team of researchers wowed the world with the first few seconds of video taken of a giant squid in its natural habitat. Until recently, the 600 pound creature that can grow up to 43 feet long had long eluded and tantalized marine biologists, having only been captured in still images and studied after dead squids washed on shore or floated in the sea.
The giant squid may have been the inspiration for the mythical Kraken, but there exists an even larger tentacled beast in the ocean: the colossal squid, which can reach weights of more than 1,000 pounds. Though the colossal squid is shorter from end to end than the giant squid, its mantle is longer and much heavier.
And, like the giant squid (until recently), the colossal squid has never been observed alive. It might also prove more challenging to find than the giant squid, because it lives in cold waters near Antarctica.
"Nobody has seen a colossal squid in the wild," says Edie Widder, director of Florida's Ocean Research & Conservation Association, the group that helped Japanese researchers film the giant squid. "To my way of thinking, it's a bit more interesting than the giant squid."
Much of what is known about the colossal squid has come from a few specimens that have been caught by fishermen off the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, and South America. The most complete colossal squid was caught in 2007 by a New Zealand fisherman and is currently on display at the Museum of New Zealand. That squid was about 33 feet long and weighed 1,091 pounds. One researcher said calamari made from the squid would be "like tractor tires."
Unlike its giant squid cousin, which is a silvery or gold metallic color, the colossal squid has its own lighting system, Widder says. It also might be next on her list of animals to pursue
"It's bioluminescent," she says. "I think it's amazing. I'd love to go after a colossal squid."
She might be the best equipped to do so. Widder says her method of using a red light that is invisible to squid and an optical lure keeps them from swimming away from submersible vessels. Besides filming the giant squid, she's had success discovering other species of animals. On a test run in 2004, Widder all-but-accidentally discovered a new squid species.
"The first time I used this technique was in the Gulf of Mexico," she says. "86 seconds after I turned on the optical lure, I recorded a squid that was totally new to science, a big one. It was six feet long. There's lots to discover down there."
Michael Vecchione, a marine biologist with NOAA who studies cephalopods, says Widder's 2004 discovery still has scientists baffled.
"She calls the device the eye in the sea—that big squid she recorded, we still don't know what it is," he says. "There are definitely some mysteries to be explored down there."