When Toshifumi Wada received a picture of an odd-looking squid from Japanese aquarium staff, he knew he was onto something. The marine biologist requested the frozen specimen to be sent to him, and discovered that he was looking at the world’s first recorded giant squid baby.
“The fisherman who caught it and the aquarium staff didn’t know they were looking at a giant squid baby,” Wada, a cephalopod expert at the Institute of Natural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Hyogo in Japan, told me.
Giant squid are the world’s largest invertebrate, and can grow to over 10 meters in length. The sizes of the three Architeuthis dux babies, caught in 2013—one off the coast of Kyushu in southern Japan and the other two in the southwestern Sea of Japan—vary from 14 to 33 centimeters. The researchers detail the impact of this discovery in a paper published this week in the journal of Marine Biodiversity Records, announcing the discovery as the “first records of small-sized young giant squid.”
“I was excited because these are really important specimens,” said Wada, who explained that while a lot was known about the behavior and feeding patterns of the adult giant squid, nothing was known about their babies.
The sucker pads on a giant squid baby’s tentacle. Image: Toshifumi Wada
Giant baby squid are around the same size as regular adult squid, but Wada could tell them apart by evaluating the length of the giant squid babies’ arms (which are longer than regular adult squid), and the number and arrangement of the sucker pads on their tentacles.
This isn’t the first time that Wada has come across a giant squid. Two years ago, he actually saw an adult one around five meters long in the sea, captured it, and took it back with him to the Museum of Nature and Human Activities in Hyogo, where the sea creature is currently preserved and displayed. The same fate awaits the three baby giant squid. They’re set to go on display for the general public in aquariums in the Shimane prefecture in western Japan and Kagoshima prefecture in southwestern Japan.
So far, their discovery, said Wada, has caused some media stir in Japan. In 2013, NHK, a Japanese national broadcaster televised a giant squid in action in its natural habitat. According to Wada, since then, the Japanese public’s interest in these cephalopods has piqued.
“In Japanese myths, we do have some stories of giant squids dragging boats to the bottom of the sea, or battling with other sea creatures, but now I think the Japanese public are more curious about learning about them,” said Wada.
Two giant squid babies lie side by side. Image: Toshifumi Wada
While these finds are exciting, Wada suspects that fishermen world over could be fishing up giant squid babies without knowing about it, because they look similar to regular squid. “It’s likely they usually get chucked overboard, or perhaps eaten by fishermen as they won’t necessarily realize that what they’ve caught is a giant baby squid,” said Wada.
For the moment, Wada is pretty chuffed by the media attention drawn by his squid, and hopes to raise their profile both within and beyond Japan, so that more fishermen might realise that what’s in their nets might be more than just the catch of the day.
“It’s hard to advance this research if we don’t have specimens,” he said. “It would be great to spread more awareness about giant squid babies among fishermen so we can gather more specimens in museums and aquariums and understand how these babies live and behave.”
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.