The Man in the Lab Coat versus the Giant Squid

When I was in primary school, I guess I would have been about 6 or 7, one of my most prized possessions was a small, illustrated, abridged paperpack copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I must have read it 50 times; I even brought it in for one of my teachers to read to us, and when we dressed up as literary characters for Book Week (do kids still do that?), I came as Captain Nemo.

It’s true – I’ve been geeky all my life. But I like to think I was at least a cultured geek, with a love for Important Geek Literature. And even years later, after re-reading the full unabridged novel a few years ago and realising it’s largely just a list of interesting fish, I still remember the fight with the giant squid. It was, predictably, also my favourite part of the Disney film, in which a bizarrely upper-class Nemo played by James Mason fights off the world’s rubberiest monster with the help of Kirk Douglas as Ned Land. (I still love that movie, and it was the best birthday ever a few years ago when my Mum bought it for me on DVD.)

So you can imagine my excitement when a couple of weeks ago I headed down to Melbourne Museum to see them dissect a Giant Squid. The Science and Life Gallery was packed with people – so much so I wished I’d come earlier to get a good seat! As it was, after the break I managed to sneak down next to the media area, about as close as I could get. The video images of the dissection (which was streamed live online; there are still pictures available on the web site) were punctuated by Powerpoint slides of marine life narrated by the very polished speaker Dr. Mark Norman, who was also leading the dissection team. I learned all kinds of awesome things about giant squid thanks to the sacrifice of the sub-mature (but still enormous) female specimen, and I’d like to share a few with you.

  • The squid’s mantle – that’s the “big head bit” – has a flap held closed with the biological equivalent of press studs. The squid can pop it open to stick its tentacles inside and clean out any gunk.
  • Giant squid do not make good calamari – their flesh is permeated with an ammonia solution created from their urine which helps them achieve boyancy; they use this instead of an internal air-chamber filled shell of the sort used by Cuttlefish. This means they taste like window cleaner, and creatures that eat them, like whales and some seabirds, have super livers to handle it.
  • Giant squids have weird anatomy – their equivalent of an oesophagus passes through the centre of their donut-shaped brain, which is why they tear small pieces of their food with a parrot-like beak and mash it up with their radula – a long pointing tongue covered with very sharp, very small teeth – before swallowing. They also have three hearts, one above each gill and one in the middle, and they need them – their blood doesn’t uses copper rather than iron for oxygen transport (so no haemo-goblins), and that’s thin and inefficient, so they have to pump a lot of it. And oh, it’s also a pale blue colour. (Sadly we didn’t get to see these organs, though we did see the stomach, the ink sac and the nidamental glands, where the egg mass and its jelly are made.)
  • Squid react incredibly quickly to threats, spurting ink and vanishing in the blink of an eye using jet propulsion. The slow down point for our reaction time is the transport of signal from one cell to the next; squids solved this problem by evolving one enormous nerve cell.

So, really, what I’m saying is that giant squid are the best monsters in the world., except maybe for giant tortoises. I can only imagine what my eight-year-old self would have made of the above facts if they’d been in one of my other favourite books, Monsters of the Deep.

One comment

  1. Destructor says:

    Truly cool that you got to see that man. I saw it in the news ex post facto and it looked mighty rad. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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