Giant Squid Might Be Bigger Than We Thought

May 20, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

giant squid
Photo credit: Tim Williams/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Just how giant are these enigmatic deep-sea dwellers?

Giant squid live in the depths of the ocean, largely hidden from view. The first stranded specimens in Europe date back to 1639, but it wasn’t until 2004 that photographers captured the first images of a live giant squid in its natural habitat.

Sightings of specimens reaching 20 meters (65.6 feet) in length have been reported, but never have animals even approaching this size been scientifically documented. A recent analysis of giant squid specimens found that none exceeded 13 meters (42.7 feet) from the tip of the head to the ends of the tentacles.

Estimating the maximum length of the giant squid has been a challenge because, with only a few specimens having been measured, it’s unlikely that the very largest individuals were among them. Specimens are also often missing parts, making it hard to gauge how long the animal really was when it was alive.

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Charles Paxton, from the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling at the University of St Andrews, UK, devised a reliable way to estimate the length of a squid based on the size of its beak. Though full specimens are rare, the squid’s parrot-like beak is often found in the gut of a sperm whale that has eaten one, so numerous beaks have been measured.

By modeling the various relationships between beak size and measures of squid length, and then looking at the sizes of the beaks that have been collected, Paxton determined that “purported squid of 10 m standard length and even 20 m total length are eminently plausible.” His results were published in the Journal of Zoology.

By comparison, the blue whale, at 30 meters (98.4 feet), is the largest living animal in world.

Such great maximum lengths might be too much for the giant squid’s predators to handle, though more data is needed to determine whether the largest individuals might outgrow the risk of sperm whale predation.

With this updated estimate of its massive size, the giant squid could beat out the colossal squid, which grows to a maximum of 14 meters (45.9 feet) long and was previously thought to be the largest tentacled creature in the ocean.

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