Friday, March 16, 2007

Colossal squid's headache for science

Colossal squid's headache for science
By Kim Griggs
Science reporter, New Zealand

The squid took about two hours to land

It is believed to be the first ever intact adult colossal squid to be landed.

And for now, this beast of the deep - all 495kg (1,090lb) of it - is safely frozen in a one-cubic-metre block of ice at New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington.

The squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) came into the institution this week after being caught last month by fishermen operating in Antarctic waters.

Eventually, when the curators at Te Papa are ready, this unique specimen will be thawed to allow detailed investigation.

But that could be up to a year away.

It will require the biggest tank of anything we've got
Bruce Marshall
The entire storage area for Te Papa's "wet" collection is being renovated, and the squid will not have a permanent home until that work is completed.

Only then can the delicate work of un-freezing this massive mollusc begin.

Dead lump

"It's got to be thawed out slowly. You can't put hot water on it, you've just got to thaw it out naturally," says Te Papa's mollsuca collections manager Bruce Marshall.

To minimise handling of the precious specimen, the colossal squid will probably have its temperature raised, over days, in the tank in which it will finally be "fixed".

"We don't want to move it too much," says Marshall.

"When a thing like that is in the water, it's neutrally buoyant.

NZ fisherman with colossal squid - 22/2/07
The squid could well be the largest specimen ever found
"But, of course, when you get it out of the water, you've got a big lump of weight and you could try lifting it and your hands would go right through.

"Already it's got puncture marks from the net."

Once un-frozen, the creature will be fixed, or embalmed, and then a long-term preservative will be used.

"What I mean by a fixing tank is a tank that you lay it out in, in a natural position, and you then make all the adjustments - align all the arms, pack out the body and all of that. Then you have it in a, say, 5% formalin solution.

"It will require the biggest tank of anything we've got."

Sexing squid

Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni was first identified in 1925 after two tentacles were recovered from a sperm whale's stomach. Since then, only a handful of colossal squid have ever been sighted.

Two were found in the Ross Sea, and another turned up near South Georgia in 2005.

Infographic, BBC
The colossal squid has one of the largest beaks known on any squid, and also has unique swivelling hooks on the clubs at the ends of its tentacles.

This latest colossal squid was caught by a New Zealand fishing vessel in Antarctica's Ross Sea in early February.

Next week will see an official handover from New Zealand's Fisheries Minister, Jim Anderton, to Te Papa's chief executive, Dr Seddon Bennington.

Scientists will be keen to ascertain the creature's gender; and then we may get a little closer to understanding just how big these squid can grow.

Marshall thinks that given its size - an estimated 10m (33ft) in length - it is likely to be a female, as female squid are often larger than males.

"It's extremely unlikely to be a male," says Marshall. "If it is a male, the mind boggles at how big the female would be."

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