8:38 p.m. February 6, 2013

Architeuthis Dux: Why Science Matters

I am staring at a monitor, watching three scientists who are also staring at a monitor.

The tall man in the back -- marine biologist and one of the world's leading squid experts Steve O’Shea -- wears a pained expression, his bearded face furrowed in concern and anticipation. Crouched next to him is Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera, a Japanese zoologist with Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.

Kubodera is credited with the first photograph of a giant squid in 2004, and the first successful filming of one on the ocean surface in 2006. He is leaning into the monitor, his mouth a perfect “o”, eyes gleaming with excitement. Seated next to the monitor is bioluminescence expert Edie Widders, clutching a coffee cup, shrieking and moaning in delight.

“Sh-show us again,” begs Kubodera. The small room on the research vessel the Alucia shakes with restrained jubilation as everyone awaits his verdict. On the screen, the long arms of a squid dance in front of the camera, glowing white in the infrared light that has been adjusted for human eyes. The arms move with the grace of ink swirling in water, like a nightmare of cream spreading through coffee.

Hundreds of suckers line the ghostly arms, which were filmed exploring the camera from the bottom of the ocean off Chichi-jima, a island often referred to as the "Japanese Galapagos" for the unique diversity it contains.

“It must be a giant squid, it must be, it must be,” announced Kubodera, nodding his head for emphasis.

“Are you kidding me?” asks Widders.

He isn't. Widders had captured the footage using a camera mounted on an artificial jellyfish, the e-Jelly, which sits on the seabed, flashing the warning pattern of the Atolla Jellyfish. The team is tantalizingly close to seeing one with their own eyes. And by the end of their research expedition, history will have been made.

In July 2012, during a research expedition filmed by the Discovery Channel and the Japanese Public Broadcaster NHK, a live giant squid was observed and filmed in its natural habitat for the first time ever. Though several methods at luring the giant squid were attempted - like O’Shea’s ground-up squid slurry to entice them with chemical sex signals and Winner’s artificial bioluminescence - it was Kubodera squid-baited lures that finally brought us at the surface the first glimpses of this gorgeous deep ocean dweller.

Sea vampire, devil fish, kraken, and monster, Architeuthis dux is the stuff of legend. Feared and maligned by sailors around the world for hundreds of years, the legend of the giant squid has persisted across cultures for as long as carcasses have been washing up ashore and seamen have been returning home with tentacles hacked off for probing inside their boats.

But what makes Architeuthis so amazing isn’t the horrifying lore or the cephalopod-fueled nighttime emissions of H.P. Lovecraft aficionados. No, in the case of this deep-sea beauty, biology is far stranger than fiction. Three hearts (which, should be noted, is common to all squids). Blue blood. Cannibalism. Jet propulsion. Eyes the size of dinner plates. Suckers ringed with serrated chitin - a horny polysaccharide found in the hard outer parts of insects, spiders, and crustaceans - that will fuck you up proper if applied to and torn from your flesh. (Just ask all the sperm whales swimming around covered in circular scars from squid encounters). A sharply pointed beak, a half a foot long, for biting chunks of food. A body covered in mucus. Tri-lobed brains, with one lobe that wraps around the esophagus.

And did I mention the size?

Giant squid are huge; the maximum scientifically recorded length - from the tip of their ovoid fins that line the peak of their mantle (the thick, muscular tube thing that we think of as their head) to the gruesomely sucker-covered club-like ends of the two feeding tentacles that extend far beyond their eight feeding arms - was 42 feet. (Like all things that humans pull out of the water, the maximum growth of these creatures is often exaggerated, even by news organizations that should ostensibly know better.) Scientific consensus, however, holds that these squid max out at 40 to 45 feet in length.

What are the limiting factors that determine just how big a giant squid can become? According to Dr. Craig McClain, Chief Editor of Deep Sea News and Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, we have a couple of ideas. He agrees to outline them both, but only after carefully noting that, as of yet, there are no data or tests. Scientists.

“We really don’t have a good idea. I can tell you a couple of hypotheses, but of course, there’s no support for or against either one of these yet.”

The first hypothesis comes down to need. “They’ve pretty much managed to outgrow the size of everything else. So, there may not be much selection going on for them to be any bigger.”

Since the only known predator of the giant squid is the sperm whale, there’s probably not a whole lot of pressure on the giant squid to get bigger. If there’s no benefit to being bigger to escape predators, squid that are naturally a little bit bigger than their counterparts have no advantage over those in the 40 to 45 foot range, are no more likely to live long and reproduce and pass along their genes.

“Of course if they got bigger, they’d need more food, so why get bigger than you need to if it requires more work?”

The other hypothesis has to do with metabolic demand. “If you look inside of a squid, you’ll find that they have three hearts, a central heart and then two hearts that are attached to the base of the gills on both sides.” The non-central hearts pump oxygen-rich blood (or rather, the squid equivalent of blood) from the gills to the centrally located heart, which then distributes the blood around the body.

“The thing you have to keep in mind is that squid are pretty much all muscle, like a big free-living muscle. And so, the rate at which they consume energy and oxygen is very, very high.” Given this, there is a huge demand for oxygen around the body, hence the three hearts. “Now, if you increase the size of a giant squid to be even bigger, it could potentially be that they couldn’t keep that up. They wouldn’t be able to get enough oxygen to the rest of their tissues, they wouldn’t have enough energy to be able to survive.” Given that the new footage shows a very aggressive, active style of movement and predation, the hypothesis that these animals are size limited by their metabolic demands seems all the more reasonable.

And then there’s the sex. Giant squid are sexually size dimorphic, meaning there are differences in the body sizes of males and female; ladies, in this case, are the bigger of the two. Males, not to be outdone, have absolutely enormous and flatly intimidating penises. But of course, size isn’t everything. Oh no, males use their intimidating member to hydraulically implant spermatophores into females. And, as it turns out, other males.

Per Dr. McClain’s excellent giant squid fact sheet, “[g]iven the distribution and concentration of sexually mature individuals collected today, giant squid appear to come together at particular breeding grounds.” The presence of hydraulically-implanted spermatophores in both males and females, plus the breeding ground hypothesis, suggest to me a scene reminiscent of giant squid firehose bukkake. (The spermatophores, in case you need the extra visual, look like thick, white spaghetti noodles, slipped under the skin. Yum!)

There is something of a controversy as to how the giant squid hunts. Some, like Steve O’Shea, have hypothesized that the squid drags it’s long tentacles down in the water, waiting to grab prey and drag it into its foot and a half-wide mouth. Conversely, the footage of the 2012 expedition shows the squid attacking the bait with all the ferocity of an active predator. However, the squid caught on camera lacked the long tentacles that are part of the normal physiology of the giant squid, likely due to some kind of accident. Thus, there is still some room for debate as to whether or not that one squid had adopted a new, more active hunting style or giant if giant squid are actually active predators.

Which brings me back to Dr. Kubodera’s footage. Inside a clear bubble, 2000-some feet down below the surface, the men are crammed inside the Triton deep sea rover, which looks a bit like a soap bubble fucked a yellow school bus. Outside, a smaller bait squid dangles lifeless in the wash of green light. It’s July 12th, 2012, and Kubodera tells the cameraman that he is sixty years old and this is his last go at this kind of research. I get butterflies. I know what is coming, but before my brain has a chance to catch up with the free-wheeling mayhem of my revved up autonomic nervous system, it happens. Seemingly materializing from the blackness of the sea itself, a probing mass of arms pours into the field of vision.

Every hair on my arms stands at attention, absolutely riveted by the footage on my screen. There it is. The giant squid, zooming in to grapple the bait, wrapping its formidable arms around its latest meal.

Kubodera calls for white light, a risky move that might scare off the animal. Thankfully, the squid is undeterred by the brightness and the decision pays off ten-fold. With the lights flipped on, and the reddish, silvery behemoth feasting on the bait, the full glory of what is now unfolding before these isolated men is illuminated under the harsh glow of inquisition.

There is only one word swimming through my brain as I watch this ancient wonder gracefully pump its muscular mantle to expel just enough water to keep it motionless in the depths: Awesome.

Not in its current bacon is awesome usage, that is, the colloquialized wreckage of a word that used to mean something. No, awesome by its actual definition: that which inspires awe. My throat is tight, that familiar sense of wonder surging through my body, threatening to burst out of me in a shout or a sob. Out of my mouth spills an awkward, huskily murmured disyllable.

Awesome.

Architeuthis dux, translated from Latin to mean the most important squid leader, hangs in the water, its arms curling and sleekly articulating with such complicated ease, its beak tearing chunks from the proffered carcass, its enormous black eye lolling about, peering into the brightness of that yellow orb containing the strange land mammals that dare bear witness to the depths. And I am overcome with awe.

The giant squid pummeled me with its awesomeness, choking me with it, dragging me up by my ankles and shaking my feeble mind about as I frantically try to absorb this painfully short glimpse into the infinite stores of wonder that so often go neglected.

My chest hurts and I realize that in my utter stillness I’m holding my breath, an unconscious act of reverence in the presence of such a remarkable and long-sought creature. Voraciously consuming the wonder and terror softly undulating in front of me, my eyes burn from not blinking. I mourn every inquisitive child who grew up to be an adult that no longer wonders, that never asks why, never indulges their curiosity, that forgets how to open themselves up to the exhilaration of awe.

Since I was nine years old, performing my first dissection at marine biology camp, bent over my squid with what were surely comical levels of determination, I’ve wanted to see this. Read about it, researched it, dreamed about it. And, nearly two decades later, here it is. My mind, overwhelmed and wrecked with wonder, is nine years old again.

I am reminded once again why science matters.

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with two contributors.