Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Marketing the Mystery of the Giant Squid

• September 29, 2011 • 4:00 AM

We don’t really know if the giant squid is endangered, but this animal still could inspire protection of the world’s invertebrates.

The new canary in the coal mine could be a giant squid.

Conservation efforts often rally around charismatic species like the African elephant or the bald eagle. Popular affection for these “flagship” animals can be leveraged into funding and political will. But who speaks for the 95 percent of Earth’s inhabitants without a backbone? No worm has the rock-star appeal of a Bengal tiger.

Enter the giant squid. Ángel Guerra, a research professor at CSIC (the National Research Council of Spain), makes the case for turning this unusual animal, the largest invertebrate in the world, into a flagship for its marine peers. His enthusiasm for the giant squid has led him to write a book, El Calamar Gigante, containing advice on how to promote ocean conservation with the giant squid.

Given their global distribution throughout the deep sea — Earth’s least explored ecosystem — giant squid could be that proverbial canary in the coal mine, a warning of environmental change. But despite their size and range, little is known about the animal known to science as Architeuthis — including whether this canary is even in peril.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Guerra first had the idea of linking the giant squid to conservation in 2002, when a cacophony of oil-prospecting airgun explosions was followed by nine giant squid deaths in the Bay of Biscay. “One of the specimens was practically destroyed by a direct impact,” he says.

He had heard that similar numbers of dead giant squid were sometimes found across the Atlantic, on the beaches of Newfoundland. Thus began an investigation into human impacts on giant squid around the world, culminating in Guerra’s flagship species proposal in the July issue of the journal Biological Conservation.

In addition to their susceptibility to noise pollution, which Guerra considers validated by recent laboratory studies on other squid species, giant squid may also suffer from the accumulation of chemical toxins such as heavy metals.

And it’s unlikely that Architeuthis will be immune to the effects of climate change. The Newfoundland story told by Guerra and his colleagues links warmer ocean bottom water to more giant squid strandings. In this case, “warm” doesn’t mean bathtub temperature. It’s the difference between freezing and a few degrees above freezing, which might be enough to disorient the squid.

Like all marine creatures, giant squid face the double whammy of warming water and ocean acidification (more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drives a decrease in seawater pH). This can make it harder for all cephalopods — squid and their relatives — to breathe. “When you decrease pH for cephalopods just a little bit, most of them quickly begin to struggle to carry oxygen in their bloodstream,” says Roger Hanlon, senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, who has been culturing these animals in captivity for decades. “[A pH measure] is the single most important water quality parameter you look for.”

But to Guerra, the greatest threat to the giant squid is fishing. No one catches giant squid on purpose — their flesh is unpalatable — but trawl nets bring them up anyway. Discarded at sea, these carcasses may later be washed ashore. “In the northeast Atlantic there is a total correspondence between fishing and strandings,” says Guerra. “When the trawl fishery was closed there were no animal records. In 2009-2010, when the fishery was re-opened, there were seven animals.”

If 10 or even a hundred giant squid are killed annually by fisheries, that number pales in comparison with the thousands of unintended deaths endangering species like sea turtles. Could giant squid really be affected by relatively small losses?

It depends on how many squid are out there, and “nobody knows the size of the populations of Architeuthis,” admits Guerra.

“From a scientific point of view, all of these arguments are highly speculative,” Hanlon points out. Data are so limited that no one can be sure what effects pollution, climate change and fishing might have on giant squid. “Out of all the invertebrates,” says Hanlon, “I am surprised that they would pick a species for which so little is known.”

Research on giant squid has been limited by necessity — nearly all specimens are found dead or dying, floating at the sea surface or stranded on beaches. Japanese researcher Tsunemi Kubodera filmed the first live giant squid in 2006, and scientists are still a long way from being able to capture and keep them in aquariums.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Whether or not the giant squid is an ecological canary may be irrelevant to its potential as a flagship species, argues Diogo Verissimo at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology. The biologist says a flagship species is, after all, a marketing concept, not an ecological one. In a recent review in Conservation Letters, Verissimo and his co-authors urge conservation scientists to embrace marketing principles in selecting flagships. They believe that confusing the marketing “product” of a flagship species with the biological nature of the species itself hurts conservation.

Guerra, who focused his proposal on the biology of the giant squid, disagrees. Verissimo declined to comment directly on Guerra’s work, as he is currently leading a group of scientists in composing a written reply.

Both researchers, however, highlight the lack of unconventional flagship species in the world of conservation, noting that the same familiar vertebrates tend to be used and re-used. The giant squid may not rival the giant panda in popularity, but, in standing for marine invertebrates, it represents a much greater diversity of life.

And, as Verissimo points out, popularity can be influenced through marketing.

A useful first step would be to discover the audience’s innate preferences in “spokes-animals.” In North America and Europe, says Verissimo, “One thing that really drives people is body size.” As the largest invertebrate in the world, the giant squid has a clear advantage in this realm. Architeuthis grows up to 60 feet long, and although most of that length comprises the spidery tentacles, the main body can reach a still-impressive 16 feet.

In a place like Tanzania, on the other hand, people prefer herbivores to carnivores. The giant squid, certainly no grass-eater, may lose traction here. The villain of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea doesn’t attack humans outside of fiction, but the reputation lingers.

Even in the industrial world, carnivores can draw a schizophrenic public reaction. Look at wolves. “It’s exactly the same species, the wolves are exactly the same,” says Verissimo. “And one audience is willing to invest time, money and effort to conserve them, and a different audience does exactly the opposite, investing time, money and effort to kill them.”

But in addition to its enormous size, the giant squid holds a trump card: the very mystery that makes assessing its vulnerability so difficult. The plethora of unanswered questions about this animal draw fascinated crowds to giant squid exhibits around the world.

The Centre for the Giant Squid in Luarca, Spain, is the world’s only museum entirely devoted to Architeuthis. The 11 specimens on display attract a constant stream of visitors and are periodically rented out to other museums. “Giant squid are very good moneymakers,” comments Guerra, who has dissected and studied all of the center’s animals.

One point on which Guerra and Verissimo would surely agree is the value of applying their academic research to the practical world of conservation.

“One of the great problems with academia is everyone talking to each other inside, not going outside and seeing if their research is having an impact,” says Verissimo. “Any time I can see my research going out into wider society, that’s great.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Danna Staaf
Danna Staaf has a doctorate in baby squid and currently works as a freelance science writer, educator and artist. She has contributed chapters to "The Light and Smith Manual," a guide to intertidal invertebrates, and her research has been featured on the Discovery Channel. Her home on the Web is Cephalopodiatrist.com, and she blogs at Squid A Day.

More From Danna Staaf

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.