Colossal squid specimens at Te Papa

Colossal squid at Te Papa

The colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni Robson) has been known to the scientific community since 1925. It was described from two arm (branchial) crowns recovered from a sperm whale stomach at the Falkland Islands, in the South Atlantic.

The biology and morphology of colossal squid has remained poorly known until now. Only nine specimens above juvenile size have been reported since 1925.

First complete colossal squid

On 1 April 2003 a subadult specimen of a colossal squid (M. hamiltoni) was collected by a New Zealand longlining vessel fishing in Antarctic waters.

The specimen was examined by squid expert Dr Steve O'Shea (Auckland University of Technology) at Te Papa, and found to be an immature female. It had a mantle length (ML) of 2.5 m, a total length (TL) of 5.4 m and, despite being extensively damaged, it weighed about 300 kg.

At the time (2003) it was the heaviest squid known to science, and had the longest mantle of any squid measured. The lower beak of this particular specimen had a rostral length (LRL) of 38 mm.

Lower beaks of Mesonychoteuthis reported from sperm whale stomachs had been measured up to 49 mm LRL. So scientists knew that colossal squid could grow considerably larger. Following the examination of the 2003 specimen, Dr O'Shea predicted that mature colossal squid specimens of up to 500 kg could exist in Antarctic waters - a statement which was greeted with skepticism in some quarters.

Largest, complete colossal squid

In February 2007 the longlining vessel San Aspiring, fishing for Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni Norman) in the Ross Sea, captured a colossal squid specimen. It was later weighed at 495 kilogrammes.

At the time, the vessel was being filmed for a documentary on fishing in Antarctic waters. Video footage of the animal alongside the boat, being manoeuvred into a landing net, was broadcast widely on television news, and later in a documentary. This raised considerable public interest in the colossal squid specimen and its ultimate fate when it was deposited in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Image 01
One of the only pictures of the live colossal squid alongside the San Aspiring, as the crew hauls it onto the boat.

Courtesy of the Ministry of Fisheries
Image 02
Sanford New Zealand's vessel San Aspiring in the Southern Ocean.

Photograph by John Bennett
Courtesy of John Bennett
Image 03
Colossal squid Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni
Ross Sea, Antarctica, April 2003
Overall length 5.4 metres, mantle length 2.5 metres.
Image 04
Beak from 2003 specimen. Reproduced courtesy of Kathrin Bolstad.
Image 05
Tentacle clubs with swivelling hooks from 2003 specimen. Reproduced courtesy of Kathrin Bolstad.
Image 06
Mid-arm suckers and hook from 2003 specimen. Reproduced courtesy of Kathrin Bolstad.
Image 07
Steve O'Shea hosing down the 2003 colossal squid. Reproduced courtesy of Kathrin Bolstad.
Image 08
Adult female giant squid (top left), subadult female colossal squid (bottom left, 2003 specimen), and adult male teuthologist Steve O'Shea (top right). Reproduced courtesy of Kathrin Bolstad.