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A Close Look at the Colossal Squid

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Old 05-09-2008
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A Close Look at the Colossal Squid
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum Scientists at the national museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, have recently completed dissections of several enormous squids, including pieces of a colossal squid -- the largest invertebrate ever caught. The female specimen weighs more than 1,000 pounds and measures 26 feet long.
The squid's resemblance to fiction's monsters of the deep, including its dinner-plate-size eyes, has attracted global interest. Scientists now believe the cephalopods can grow even larger, to more than 45 feet long, with a corresponding increase in weight.
In this gallery, we take you into the gritty, visceral business of defrosting and preserving this Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, known in English as the colossal squid.
Left: Researchers at Te Papa had to custom-build a tank in which they could defrost the enormous squid -- and preserve it in formaldehyde.
The colossal squid is not to be confused with the giant squid, which is longer but less massive. The colossal squid pictured is almost twice as heavy as the largest giant squid discovered.
An international team of scientists was flown to New Zealand to assist in the examination of this unique find.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum The squid was accidentally caught in the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica by fishermen searching for Chilean sea bass. The ship's captain, John Bennett, was understandably excited.
"Being alongside a creature like this is just awesome," he told Newsweek. "It's easy to see why outlandish stories about them get stretched out."
After its capture, seen here, the squid was blast-frozen aboard Bennett's boat to keep it from rotting. While necessary, it created a headache for scientists who spent days figuring out how to defrost what they call "the squidcicle."
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum Scientists didn't perform a full dissection of the new colossal squid, but they did cut up two other specimens while the largest squid was defrosting.
At left is a smaller colossal squid, which is only a partial specimen -- it was damaged in transit. Still, even the partial specimen is a boon for researchers. Only 10 of this type of squid have ever been found.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum The researchers also dissected a giant squid, a cousin of the colossal variety. The giant squid is often longer than the colossal squid but significantly lighter.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum The colossal squid lives on a diet of fish, caught at depths below 6,000 feet. The squid's arm tentacles, which it uses to catch and hold prey, are lined with dozens of powerful, clawed hooks.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum Here we see the colossal squid's beak.
Squid bodies are rarely found, but squid beaks turn up in the stomachs of marine predators like sperm whales. They providing much-needed data about the size of this elusive animal because the size of the beak corresponds to the overall size of the animal.
This specimen's lower rostral beak is only 1.7 inches across, considerably smaller than the largest found in a sperm whale stomach, suggesting that much larger colossal squid exist.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum The colossal squid's eye measures 10.6 inches across -- the largest eye in the animal kingdom. Scientists believe the squid is an almost entirely visual predator and needs the huge eye to spot prey in the dark depths of Antarctic waters.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum The squid's eye was well-preserved. Here, the single lens of the creature is presented in two halves. In a living squid, the larger piece of tissue drapes over the smaller one to form a single lens.
"When this squid was alive, the lens was almost certainly spherical and possibly of a size similar to an orange," professor Eric Warrant explained on the dissection team's blog.
But scientists don't know much about the animal's eye yet because, as an expert told USA Today, "This is the only intact eye (of a colossal squid) that's ever been found."
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum In this shot of the viscera of the smaller colossal squid, we can see its striped gills and orange ovaries, which can hold thousands of tiny white eggs.
: Courtesy Te Papa Museum The record-breaking colossal squid specimen is nearly thawed in this picture. The plastic bags are serving as floaties for the squid's delicate arms so that they don't break before defrosting.
After three more weeks immersed in a formaldehyde-based solution, the colossal squid will be moved to a special tank at the Te Papa museum for permanent display.

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