Archie The Giant Squid

The Naked Scientists spoke to Fran Beckerleg interviews John Ablett at the Natural History Museum, London
23 April 2006

Interview with 

Fran Beckerleg interviews John Ablett at the Natural History Museum, London


Chris - Time now to catch up with what Fran Beckerleg has been up to at the Natural History Museum this week where she went and introduced herself to Archie, who's a giant squid.

John - Archie was actually caught by some fishermen off the coast of the Falkland Islands. When they actually caught it in their net they realised that what they'd got was so important that they took it to a research station who immediately realised that it was too big for them to handle. So they donated it to us.

Fran - What's so special about this specimen?

John - Giant squid are very rarely known. Most of the giant squid around the world have either come from specimens washed up on to the beach, in which case they're very badly damaged so there's very little of them left, or they come from the stomachs of sperm whales and are very badly digested. So to have a specimen in such good condition, so complete, is really amazing and it really is quite a large specimen.

Fran - How did you go about preserving such an enormous animal?

John - When it arrived at the museum, it was actually frozen. So the first thing we had to do was to defrost it. This was quite difficult because the mantle, which is the thick body, took a long time to defrost while the arms and the tentacles defrosted very quickly. So it was a vigorous regime of keeping the tentacles frozen with ice packs while hosing down the mantle area. Once the whole specimen was defrosted, that took around three days, we had to inject it with a preservative called formalsaline. This is a mixture between formaldehyde and salt water and this stops it from rotting from the inside out.

Fran - How far down in the sea do giant squid normally live?

John - Like a lot of things with giant squid, we're not really sure about the way they live. It was only at the end of last year that they were sighted for the first time in the wild. Two researchers from Japan actually filmed them. Estimates by studying specimens that have been found and also from sperm whales which are the main predator, we think that they probably live at a range of about 200 metres to 1000 metres.

Fran - It must be pretty high pressure down there. Do they have any special adaptations that help them to live that deep?

John - They actually fill the tissues of their skin with ammonia, which most squid would excrete. This allows them to get neutral buoyancy in the deep waters. Also they don't have any areas you can compress like most fish that live at the surface, so they're quite stable animals.

Fran - And it must also be pretty dark down there. How do they find their way around?

John - Giant squid actually have the largest eye of any animal. In this specimen it's about 23 centimetres across. Lots of people ask me why they have such a big eye at such great depth, and again, we don't really know. Lots of animals down there are bioluminescent and produce lots of flashes, so one thought is that they might have these large eyes to capture some of the flashes deep down to either avoid or find to eat.

Fran - Do you know what kind of things giant squid eat?

John - Yes there have been quite good studies on the stomach contents of giant squid. They seem to eat a mixture of cod and hake, slightly smaller squid, and there have even been reports that they might be cannibalistic, but we're not sure how true that is.

Fran - Is Archie a fully grown giant squid or are there bigger squid than Archie?

John - The biggest reported giant squid is about 18 metres, which is nearly double this size. That was in 1880 in Newfoundland. It was quite a long time ago so it's not 100% certain how true that is, but giant squid tend to be around this size with a maximum average size being around thirteen metres.

Fran - And what's going to happen to Archie now?

John - Well hopefully she'll be on display forever, not only for the public but also to researchers. So if scientists from around the world want to study the specimen then they'll be able to come here and visit it.

Chris - That was Fran Beckerleg, our roving Naked Scientist reporter down at the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London, catching up with John Ablett to hear about the giant squid Archie that they have on display there.


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