The New Technology That is Capturing Giant Squids on Camera

Paper: Robinson, N. J., Johnsen, S., Brooks, A., Frey, L., Judkins, H., Vecchione, M., & Widder, E. (2021). Studying the swift, smart, and shy: Unobtrusive camera-platforms for observing large deep-sea squid. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 103538.

Taming monsters does not require brute force, but a change of mind acquired through knowledge and scientific inquiry. And in the case of the giant squid, it also requires stealth, patience, and a special instrument that scientists call ‘The Medusa’. This instrument might help scientists achieve what so far has been impossible – making consistent observations of giant squids and other deep ocean cephalopods. 

Monsters Hidden in the Depth’s of the Sea

A giant squid found in 1954 and being measured by the Professors Erling Sivertsen and Svein Haftorn. The specimen was measured to a total length of 9.2 meters. Credit: NTUN University Museum

Giant squids are terrifying. They are smart, fast-moving, 14-meter-long giants with pale ghost-looking skin, powerful gripping tentacles, a sharp beak, and eyes the size of a soccer ball. With this terrifying look, it is no surprise that myths about giant squids abound. From millennia-old tales about the Kraken to blockbuster movies, we humans, have speculated about their behaviors and feared for the worst. 

Yet, our contact with giants squids has been limited. Trawling nets used to collect deep-sea animals like squids move too slow for the swift giant squid. Submersibles and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) have powerful loud motors and bright lights that scare giant squids away. As a result, the majority of giant squid sightings happen on the surface when dead giant squids wash ashore, or when they get caught on fishing nets. Without consistent and reliable observations, it is difficult to know what squids do in the depths of the ocean.

The Medusa

The Medusa is a deep-sea camera platform created by Dr. Widder from the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, which is designed to lure deep-sea squids. Instead of bright lights that scare squids away, the medusa has red dimmed lights that are not picked up by the squid’s eye. Furthermore, this device has a mimic bioluminescent jellyfish called an e-jelly. The neon blue LED lights of the e-jelly indicate that a potential meal may be nearby and attracts squids closer to the Medusa. 

E-Jelly used in the study. Credit: Dr. Widder

Within a short period of time, the Medusa has already advanced our knowledge about deep-sea squids. First, it confirmed the presence of giant squids (Architeuthis dux) in North American waters and extended the range of Pholidoteuthis sloani, which had only been found in Mid-Atlantic ridge, to the Gulf of Mexico. Second, it indicated that both giant squids and Pholidoteuthis sloani are visual predators. Both species ignored the olfactory cues provided by the bait attached to the medusa. Instead, both species stalked the e-jelly from afar and followed the bobbing motion of the device before attacking their prey. A video of a giant squid attacking attracking the e-jelly can be found here.

Like all other ocean animals, the future of giant squids is unknown. Climate change, ocean acidification, plastics and other pollutants affect even the most remote areas in the ocean. Studying giant squids through deep sea camera platform like the medusa could potentially yield enough information to allow scientists to estimate population numbers and asses their conservation status. This information could help us act, so that we can continue to learn about one of the most bizarre and creepy animals in our planet.

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