Giant squid: magical monsters

Not giant but still gorgeous!

Giant squid capture the imagination like almost nothing else. They’re monsters made real – horrifying and beautiful all at once. They’re also a brilliant advert for the joys of discovery – huge animals that have never been observed in their natural habitat.

The closest I’ve ever been to one was on a visit to the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre, where you can see a preserved squid on a special tour. It’s almost like visiting an embalmed celebrity – you can’t quite believe you’re really seeing a giant squid.

But luckily the wonders of television can take you on an armchair voyage of discovery – without the threat of being torn apart by a real-life kraken. Giant Squid: Inside Nature’s Giants was amazing, proving that squid are so much more than scary sea monsters.

I think it’s the mystery that makes these animals so fascinating. Better than the Loch Ness Monster, because we know they’re real. But almost as elusive – we only have a few images of living giant squid, so we know almost nothing about how they live.

Luckily we know a bit more about their smaller relatives, and they are impressive. Smaller squid are super-fast hunters that can change colour instantaneously. They also eat their prey alive with sharp parrot-like beaks – as one of the scientists on the programme pointed out, a scaled-up version of this is pretty scary.

The weirdness of the squid is another reason why they’re so impressive – fast, intelligent animals that are nothing like humans. They have blue blood, no bones and their body plan is so strange that they look like aliens.

They and their relatives are also brilliant at camouflage. Insects that mimic leaves are great, but cephalopods have far more party tricks in their repertoire. Cuttlefish and octopuses can change the colour and texture of their skin to replicate almost anything. Some of the shots in this programme showing disguised cephalopods were absolutely amazing. Watching a clump of sea-weed turn into an octopus was more like magic than a nature documentary. More evidence, in case you needed it, that humans really aren’t the most impressive species on the planet.

If animals like these are managing to hide so effectively in the depths of the sea, what else could be down there? It sometimes seems like science is finished with discovering new animals, but giant squid help me to imagine what it must have been like trekking through a jungle before we had mapped so many species. Scary but awesome (or ‘better than a partridge hunt’, as Darwin described it).

I’ve written about the Census of Marine Life before, but this programme reminded me again just how important it is to explore and catalogue the species in the sea. Our ordinary environment might seem boring sometimes (even though there are more homely molluscs like snails and slugs to marvel at), so it’s wonderful to see that the ocean is still full of surprises.

The programme ended with a shot of a mother squid at the end of her life, swimming with her mass of embryos. Some of these were spinning off into the ocean, lit up like fireflies. Not just fascinating, but beautiful too.

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