In search of the giant squid Smithsonian scientist hopes to see beast alive in its habitat

April 19, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It's hard to believe in 1997, but there is an animal lurking in many dark and spooky places around the world that can grow longer than a bus but has never been seen alive by man.

The creature is Architeuthis dux -- the giant squid of myth, legend and the much-exaggerated tales of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," and Peter Benchley's "Beast."

But the giant squid is real, and Dr. Clyde F. E. Roper of the Smithsonian Institution is likely to be one of the first humans to see it in its natural habitat.

"When I was young I heard a lot of stories and myths that were just so much bull honkey," he said recently in his book-lined office overlooking the Mall in Washington. "I took up the cause to find out, and tell the truth about these animals."

Roper returned recently from a two-month expedition to one haunt of the giant squid, in the deep Pacific canyons off Kaikoura, between Christchurch and Wellington, New Zealand.

He is scheduled to speak about the work, and his plans to return to Kaikoura Canyon, at 2: 30 p.m. tomorrow at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It is the first in the aquarium's new Marjorie Lynn Bank Lecture Series.

His scientific team got no photos of Architeuthis but found signs that it was near. Fishermen had seen remains. The team also found the parrotlike beaks of giant squid in the stomach of a

stranded sperm whale. And the whale's skin bore circular sucker scars -- the marks of violent encounters with the giant squid.

A native of Rye, N.H., Roper is a world-class scientist and an authority on squids. Classed as cephalopods along with octopus and cuttlefish, squids are invertebrates that come in all sizes.

Roper earned his doctorate from the University of Miami with a dissertation on a previously undescribed three-inch Atlantic squid he named Enoploteuthis anapsis.

Now 59, Roper has worked for more than 30 years at the Smithsonian, joined by Dr. Michael Sweeney and Dr. Michael Vecchione. Together, they call themselves the "Squid Squad."

Fascinating

Why squid? They're fascinating, he said.

"They have such phenomenal adaptations for survival in the sea, whatever their habitat might be," he said. They also have the animal world's most elaborate chromatophores -- skin organs that allow them to change color as needed to vanish against any backdrop.

His goal has been to learn how squid live, but also how they fit in with other species in their environment, and how they vary around the world, or across the vast range of depths they are known to inhabit.

"When I started," he said, "very few people in the world were [studying] the biodiversity of the species."

For many years, he regarded giant squid as a sideline. Only a few hundred had ever been found.

But he sees them now as leverage -- a mystery big and colorful enough to pry financial support from popular media like National Geographic TV, which has helped to back his work.

As government research dollars have dried up, the documentary media have become increasingly important to scientists.

"At times, it is an uneasy collaboration," Roper said. The cameras' demands sometimes get in the way of the science. But the media money unlocks a door not just to giant squid, but to an entire ecosystem of less colorful species.

The world of the giant cephalopods is "virtually a complete mystery to us," Roper said.

For centuries, sailors told of confrontations with monsters with sucking tentacles and slashing beaks. But by the time they reached shore, any evidence had rotted away. It wasn't until the 1870s that scientists verified that the monsters were squids.

But so far, they've all been dead -- battered and torn by the surf, in nets, or in the stomachs of whales.

In 1980, the remains of a giant squid washed up on the beach at Plum Island, Mass. Roper rushed to claim it, and it now lies, pickled, on exhibit at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum.

It is a sorry sight. Its reddish skin was sanded off in the surf, and its tentacles have shriveled or broken off. They probably grow to be 60 feet in length and weigh up to a ton.

Little is known

Giant squid have washed up in every ocean, but little is known about where and how they live.

"A few minutes of viewing the squid in their natural habitat will answer many of these questions," Roper said.

Sperm whales feed on squid, foraging at depths from 300 feet to 600 feet, and occasionally more than a mile. Once in a while they gobble giant squid. In New Zealand recently, three giant squid beaks -- and 5,000 from smaller squid species -- flopped out of a stranded sperm whale's stomach. It was a week's consumption.

"That's pretty impressive," Roper said. "It's one of the bits of solid evidence that we're looking in the right places."

The trawl nets of New Zealand roughy fishermen have also brought up giant squid, from depths up to 4,300 feet.

From these clues, Roper figures there must be plenty of giant squid along the steep canyons east of New Zealand, probably at depths from 600 to 2,300 feet.

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