The giant squid on the dissection table.
Matt Kettmann

One of the ocean’s most mysterious species landed in Santa Barbara this week when a giant squid arrived at the Museum of Natural History, dead and frozen since its June discovery, but full of potential answers to sea scientists’ most pressing questions.

Nine-year-old Marshall Payatt helps Eric Hochberg examine the giant squid.
Matt Kettmann

On Friday, August 22, the cephalopod was splayed on the museum’s dissection table while invertebrate zoology curator Eric Hochberg and his nine-year-old assistant Marshall Payatt from Peabody Elementary School poked, prodded, and cut samples from the deep sea beast. Also in attendance was Alexander “Sasha” Arkhipkin, the Falkland Islands-based president of the Cephalopod International Advisory Council. Altogether, the morning necropsy attracted quite a few onlookers, including a crew from the Discovery Channel, for whom the event was staged.

Not to be confused with the Humboldt, or jumbo, squid – which only grow to about seven feet, travel in schools, and are harvested off the coast of Mexico to become tasty calamari steaks – the giant squid, or Architeuthis martensii, lives a solitary life in much deeper waters, can grow close to 45 feet, and uses an ammonium chloride solution for buoyancy, making it generally undesired for eating. Only four have ever been found off the coast of California, and all four were examined and are preserved at the museum. The squid on display Friday, which was found by shark researchers in Monterey Bay on June 25, represented the most intact specimen ever collected in California waters, amounting to nearly 15 feet and 170 pounds of flesh.

Hochberg estimated that, when alive, this squid was probably close to maturity and reached 30 feet in length. Since it was attacked and killed by another sea creature – likely by a sperm whale, the most common known predator of the species – the squid’s eyes had been pecked out by birds, most of its eight arms had been eaten away by fish, its guts and organs had been feasted upon, and one of the two feeding tentacles had also been chomped. Nonetheless, there was plenty of flesh to search through and sample, with pieces sent off to six or more researchers in various parts of the world to help piece together more information about the life of giant squid.

“There is a tremendous amount of things we don’t know about them,” said Hochberg as his fingers moved around the wet, stinky, purple and white flesh. Very little is known about the squid’s life cycle, for instance, from reproduction techniques to lifespan, and there’s also not much known about what it eats and what eats it. And, asked Hochberg while mentioning the old seafaring myths about predatory cephalopods, “Are they maneaters?”

Additionally, scientists are trying to track whether the giant squid follows similar migration patterns of the Humboldt squid, whose recent appearance in more northern waters – even as far as Alaska – have caused some to blow the global warming horn. But Hochberg said that similar invasions of Humboldt squid occurred in the mid 1800s and early 1930s, so it may be part of a natural migration cycle. Is the giant squid affected by the same cycle? This specimen may help figure out such a question.

The Museum of Natural History's invertebrate zoology curator Eric Hochberg watches as his assistant Marshall Payatt explains the ins and outs of squid life.
Matt Kettmann

Most pressing for Hochberg, though, is how many distinct species of giant squid actually exist. As a taxonomist, Hochberg is hoping that this squid’s samples will shed light on whether California’s populations are the same species as the ones in Japan and others than show up as far south as Hawaii. Currently, there are 20 or so names for giant squid species, but Hochberg seemed to think that the true number is probably much less.

But with so few giant squid popping up, the answers to these questions might not be known until Hochberg’s assistant Marshall Payatt grows up. Payatt, whose parents are active members of the museum, is a squid expert, and was involved in a previous necropsy back in 2006.

With cameras rolling, Payatt eloquently described some known aspects of the giant squid’s life and even encouraged a reporter from KEYT to touch the dead creature. “It feels like your lip but a little more rubbery,” Payatt explained as the female reporter backed away. “But don’t scream like a girl,” he warned.

Close-up of the giant squid guts.
Matt Kettmann

Among other dissection highlights, Hochberg pulled out plastic-like pieces, which comprised what could be best described as a backbone, as well as a translucent brownish-yellow piece of the beak, which is made of fingernail-like material. The giant squid’s anatomy features a mouth at the top of the head, which means the esophagus travels through the brain. “So you have to get very small chunks of food,” said Hochberg, “or you’ll blow your brains out.” The sharp beaks, then, are used to chomp food into tiny pieces before sending it down the esophagus, through the brain, and into the gut.

Coincidentally, Sasha Arkhipkin happened to be in California on vacation, and decided to come by to see the beast. The Russian scientist does research on squid in the Falkland Islands of the South Atlantic Ocean, and is president of the Cephalopod International Advisory Council. He spent some time explaining the squid’s amazing growth rate especially as it lives in such cold water, and discussed struggles with trying to determine the age of various collected specimens. “Really, there are so many question marks with this animal,” said Arkhipkin with a Russian accent. “They are so rarely seen, and so rarely get to the hands of scientists. Every single find is very important for us.”

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