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Mystery Squid - 2002-01-20

VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on an unidentified kind of squid, with tentacles as long as a city bus, that has been spotted in the depths of the world's oceans.

Got a question about a squid, ask Michael Vecchione. His specialty at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington is cephalopods . . . squids, octopods and their relatives. In a museum library that's off limits to tourists are samples of the 750 different known cephalopod species.

But, nothing in the library matches the seven meter long creature captured on videotape in the deep ocean and sent to Michael Vecchione to identify. He presses the play button on his video recorder, and what he calls the 'mystery squid' floats into view. He says what we're watching is obviously a squid, but it's unlike any squid he'd ever seen before.

Vecchione: "There's a fairly small body with these very long arms coming off of it. And, all of the arms are unusual because they all go out at an angle from the body and there is almost like an elbow in it, and there is an extremely long spaghetti-like extension from where that arm is. And, if you count, there are ten of these things which are all identical. Most squids have eight arms and then they have two modified arms that we call tentacles. On most squids the tentacles are very different from the other arms. On these animals all ten of them are pretty much the same."
Skirble: "What is the purpose of these long arms?"
Vecchione: "All we can do at this point is guess. One of the animals that we recorded actually bumped into the robot sub that was recording it, and the arms stuck to the sub, and the animal seemed to have trouble letting go. So, it looked like these long arms are very sticky. And I think what it does is that it drifts along in this deep, deep water that it lives in with these arms dangling down below it in the darkness waiting for its prey to bump into them and stick to the arms. And the prey is probably little shrimp like animals that swim around in the deep sea."

The mystery squid also has really big fins shaped liked elephant ears. Michael Vecchione says he can't be certain of the squids' identity until one is captured. But, he says he does have a clue from a baby squid specimen that floats in an alcohol jar at the National Museum of Natural History. "This is the type specimen for Magnapinnidae Pacifica. The common name would be the 'big-finned squid.' Magnapinnidae means big-fin. And, you can see it's just basically a fin, about the size of a silver dollar with a tiny squid body hanging off of it. The reason we think the videos may be the adults of this is because the animals in the videos not only have this very big fin. But also these juveniles have strange tips to their arms and tentacles, and I think those might grow out into the really long thin extensions that we see on the bigger animals."

The adults on video have been spotted - eight times since 1988 in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Michael Vecchione says observations were made at depths ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 meters. "What you find is that the deep sea is by far the largest ecosystem on earth," he says. "It makes up well over ninety percent of the living space on earth, and these animals have shown up repeatedly over the past twelve years or so yet we know nothing at all about them. They are very large, very visible. It's not like this is a new worm crawling around in the mud."

Michael Vecchione says the deep sea is a new frontier that is open for exploration.

Vecchione: "We used to think that hardly anything could live in the deep sea. That's obviously not true, and it turns out that there is a lot of diversity in the deep sea and the more we look, the more we discover animals like this that are completely unexpected."
"And these tiny creatures (in the jar) and the creatures you have on video are just a gate, a doorway."
Vecchione: "Right, they are just one example of how little we know about life on earth."

For a glimpse of the mystery squid, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website at