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From the Junior Skeptic Vault:
Interview with Dr. Steve O’Shea

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 08 2011
Steve O'Shea portrait. Photo by Kathrin Bolstad.

Steve O'Shea poses with the beak of a submature Mesonychoteuthis. Photo by Kathrin Bolstad.

One of the pleasures of writing Junior Skeptic is the chance to consult leading scientists and scholars (who are almost always remarkably generous with their time). For a curious person, this is something of a dream come true. It’s also necessary. I’m fairly well-informed about a few specific sub-topics within the niche field of skepticism, but I’m regularly called upon to write about topics I can only address as a journalist or interested layperson. For those topics, from evolution to Classical mythology, I need to consult experts.

Today I’d like to share something from the Junior Skeptic vault: my previously-unpublished 2004 fact-finding interview with the renowned New Zealand-based teuthologist Steve O’Shea. There have been dramatic developments in the study of large deep-sea squids since 2004, including the first live sighting of a colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) and the first photographs of a giant squid (Architeuthis dux) in its natural habitat. Nonetheless, Dr. O’Shea’s comments are a fascinating introduction to some of the world’s largest, strangest, and least-known predators.

Release the Kraken!

2004 Interview with Dr. Steve O’Shea

Loxton: When the colossal squid burst upon the media scene last spring, it was the first that many people had ever heard of it. With the wide publicity the Antarctic specimen received, it sounded to many people like a completely new discovery of a previously unknown species. How much was known about this animal before 2003? Was the size of this particular specimen the major novelty?

O’Shea: Not a lot was known about this animal prior to the press release last year, and in fact not a lot is known about the animal today. I’ve since received another, smaller specimen from waters immediately south of New Zealand, and am in the process of describing both specimens for eventual publication.

My pitch in the release was that there were other, considerably larger and more ferocious squid out there than the giant squid. There have been so many exaggerated claims about the reputed size, weight and depth of habitation of the giant squid (as in Architeuthis dux) that I’ve spent the best part of the last 4 or 5 years trying to set the record straight.

As the submature colossal squid specimen reported last year was truly larger and more formidable than any of 121 giant squid that I have examined (quite a number!) and larger than any validated recent record of a giant squid anywhere, indicates that the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, grows considerably larger — perhaps even twice the length, and weight of the specimen we reported last year. The mature squid would have to be one of the most frightening animals on this planet, past and present, and not restricting ourselves to the oceanic environment.

Previously all press attention had been given to the giant squid, despite the colossal squid having been known since 1925 (when it was first described1 ). I cannot understand why this animal has been largely overlooked by the scientific community; another equally large species occurs in North Pacific waters, in a related genus (Galiteuthus phyllura) — another giant cranchiid squid. The public have been oblivious to both simply because the scientific community was busy promoting Architeuthis as the largest squid; this is all about to change (a Discovery Channel documentary airing 06 June, USA, Animal Face Off episode 12, the battle between the colossal squid and the sperm whale, should change people’s perception of who is the largest and meanest of them all).

That such large animals are being discovered this late in the piece, 2003/04, sends us a strong message that we know very little about deep-sea life in general, particularly the diversity, lengths and weights of animals that frequent the abyss. Other large species undoubtedly exist; just last year I reported the world’s largest octopus [PDF]. Why do I get all of these giant things? I’m not sure, but I am very active in acquiring this material — it doesn’t come easy, especially given I am also extremely active in the conservation lobby, at odds with the fishing industry, and regularly receive hate mail, and once death threats.

Loxton:What was the major scientific importance of the 2003 colossal squid specimen?

O’Shea: Its sheer size, and the fact that it was submature, indicating it grew considerably larger. This submature individual was already larger than any of 121 giant squid (Architeuthis dux) specimens that I have personally examined, so I know, based on the size of beaks recovered from the stomach contents of sperm whales, compared to those of the submature individual reported last year, that it does attain a considerably larger size, in essence dwarfing any hitherto known or reported squid.

Loxton: What are the maximum known mantle lengths for the giant and colossal squids? Total lengths? Best guesses for the largest possible sizes in the wild?

O’Shea: To answer this I have to explain something about squid morphology and recognized standards of measure.

The squid body is basically divided into 4 sections: the mantle (the tube, with fins attached), the head (with the eyes/funnel attached), the arms (x 8) and two tentacles (usually; quite a number of squid lack tentacles). There are three basic measures: mantle length (ML), standard length (SL) and total length (TL). The accepted standard measure for squid is mantle length.

Of the 121 squid (Architeuthis) that I’ve examined, the longest mantle on any specimen was of ML 2.25m. The SL is usually twice this measure (in Architeuthis); the TL of the largest specimen (the same specimen of ML 2.25m) was 13m. The total weight of this specimen was approximately 225kg.

Male Architeuthis are considerably smaller and lighter. The longest ML of any specimen that I have experienced was 1.75m, TL 10m and total weight approximately 150kg.

There is a recent report of a female giant squid from Australian waters of 2.4m ML.  My 2.25m is a measure taken post-thaw (because ice expands tissues ML is subject to increase if a specimen is measured whilst still frozen); I don’t know in what condition the specimen was when measured at 2.4m ML. All of my measures are based on post-mortem examination, and are completely relaxed specimens (there is no stretching going on to increase the lengths of a specimen—something that has been done in the past, particularly 18th and early 19th century accounts of lengths).

The submature colossal squid specimen had a ML of 2.5m, and TL of 5.4m. Admittedly it is shorter in terms of total length to the majority of giant squid specimens that I have seen, but if the ML of the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, does attain lengths in the order of 4 meters, as I believe it does,2 I just have to ask you: What or who would you sooner be in the water with – an animal that is all mantle and arms, the latter endowed with two rows of seriously evil hooks, or a longer squid of considerably shorter mantle length, with two preposterously long, flimsy tentacles extending out some 6 or 7 meters from the base of the arms?

The colossal squid lacks those preposterously long tentacles, being equipped with two considerably shorter ones, terminally endowed with 2 rows of swiveling hooks.

It is possible that the giant squid attains a length longer than any colossal squid, but in terms of bulk and true animal size, the colossal squid, even this submature specimen, was larger than any of the largest giant squid that I have ever encountered.

Loxton: Is it correct to say that adult giant squids cannot survive at or near the ocean’s surface, but that adult colossal squids can?

O’Shea: No. There are three photographic images of live giant squid (Architeuthis dux) at the very sea surface.  It is very fair to say that this is of extremely rare occurrence. It would appear that the colossal squid can extend right through the water column, probably doing so more regularly than any giant squid ever would.

Loxton: Do you think there are any reliable accounts of either species attacking humans or boats? How about submersibles?

O’Shea: No.

Loxton: Has progress been made in identifying or measuring the weird, spidery, ‘big fin’ squid reported in 2001 (and photographed in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere)? [See this 2007 video footage shot by a remotely operated vehicle.] Was this a truly novel discovery of a new species or genus, as it appears? What the heck is that thing?

O’Shea: Not that I am aware of. I’m a little embarrassed here. When we coined this Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni species the “colossal squid” I was unaware that the spidery one you refer to had earlier been referred to as “colossal” also. I think the title is certainly more befitting of the Antarctic species.

At a depth of roughly 4500 meters, that spidery thing is unlikely to be caught (as an adult) for many decades. It would require huge nets going down many thousands of meters, being towed relentlessly for many months, on the off chance of collecting a specimen. Having said this, the animal in question was so bizarre, perhaps even a living fossil (given the non-differentiation of any two ‘arms’ as tentacles), that should a juvenile be collected by submersible then we should be able to categorize the beast in question. Presently we don’t know where it fits in the grand scheme of things.3

Loxton: Cryptozoologists hope that folkloric accounts of truly monstrous, kraken-like cephalopods may be literally true (or almost true). One of your own discoveries (of an unexpected octopus of unprecedented size off New Zealand) may appear to some to support such hypotheses. Any thoughts on this?

O’Shea: I do believe that the majority of folklore accounts are exaggerated claims made by sailors returning from long periods of time at sea. They made for great stories at pubs, probably impressed the women, and boosted these lads’ egos.  There is a possibility that if a vessel had been to the Antarctic that it could have encountered one of these colossal squid, but it is more likely that having harpooned some sperm whale somewhere, the whale in a (understandably) stressed state regurgitated the contents of its stomach (this is common knowledge that they do this). A dead squid of colossal proportions in the water column, arms and tentacles waving about, supported by the water, drifting in it, would soon become some devilish monster ready to attack the boat. I do discount most folklore as nonsense, not really worthy of perpetuating in science in this day and age.

Loxton: Cryptozoologists seem to hope, as well, that any discovery of previously unknown (or previously very poorly known) large marine species increase the likelihood that other specific types of marine “cryptids” (such as the Great Atlantic Sea Serpent) may exist. Does this follow?

O’Shea: Absolutely. We know very little about life in the abyss. That I’ve personally been involved with three giants (the colossal and giant squid, and the giant octopus) tells me that I’ll probably be involved with another. When? Who knows. These things have a habit of happening when you least expect them to.

Loxton: Any decent chance that any classic sea serpent accounts record one or more otherwise currently unknown species?

O’Shea: I’d be inclined to say no, but I wouldn’t be prepared to go on record with a definitive “no” on that one.

Hope those answers help a little!


Learn More!

  1. Robson, G.C. 1925. “On Mesonychoteuthis, a new genus of oegopsid, Cephalopoda.” Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Series 9, 16: 272–277.
  2. For further commentary on colossal squid sizes, see this New Zealand Herald article about Dr. O’Shea’s examination of a larger specimen in 2008.
  3. Wikipedia article about the “Bigfin Squid” (family Magnapinnidae) to which the weird, spidery animal may belong.
  4. Check out the “Giant and Colossal Squid Fact Sheet” by Dr. Steve O’Shea and Dr. Kat Bolstad.
  5. View a Discovery Channel slide show of a colossal squid which was frozen fresh and then thawed for study by Dr. O’Shea and his team.

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4 Responses to “From the Junior Skeptic Vault:
Interview with Dr. Steve O’Shea”

  1. QuestionAuthority says:

    Fascinating column. We know so little about life on Earth…

  2. Jason Loxton says:

    2 stars? Man, what’s with the hater? How can you not like an interview with a giant squid scientist? (Reviewer: “It was OK… but the interview wasn’t squid-y enough, and the squids that were there weren’t giant enough. I’ve read better.”)

  3. arjun says:

    Great article. I almost passed it up because i thought it would be more about personal stuff. Glad i didn’t.

    I had to disagree a little with him summarily discounting folk tales of sea monsters. Although they certainly do tend to be exaggerated, they can point in the right direction. I remember reading about a giant fish that was discovered in just this way. OTOH, i’ll admit i’ve never held out any hope of finding Nessie.

  4. QuestionAuthority says:

    Hell, I gave it four stars. It’s pretty cool stuff!