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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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