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Watch: Scientists dissect an incredibly rare colossal squid on camera

The tentacles of a colossal squid sit on the surface of the water as it is defrosted at Te Papa labs in Wellington on September 16, 2014.
The tentacles of a colossal squid sit on the surface of the water as it is defrosted at Te Papa labs in Wellington on September 16, 2014.
Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2013, fishermen near Antarctica caught something that's almost never seen by humans: a colossal squid. It was only the second intact adult ever caught — the species typically lurks thousands of feet underwater.

And by colossal squid, they do mean colossal. Eyes as big as dinner plates. Tentacles as thick as fire hoses. The squid was 11 feet long and weighed some 770 pounds. It had to be carted around by forklift. (This isn't the same as a giant squid — see below.)

Then the squid sat in cold storage for eight months — until yesterday, when a team of scientists in New Zealand thawed the squid out and dissected it on live camera. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube. The action begins around the 6:57 mark:

There are some great video stills over at Business Insider Australia — note that the eyes are a foot across and the tentacles have hooks, unlike other squid species.

A short history of the colossal squid

Scientists have known about the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) since 1925 — mainly because they'd found bits and pieces of them in the stomachs of sperm whales. But for decades, no one had seen an intact adult specimen (and even juvenile specimens were rare).

That's changed in the past decade. In 2003, a fishing boat caught a "subadult" colossal squid off the coast of Antarctica. At the time, it was the biggest squid ever caught.

Then, in 2007, the fishing ship San Aspiring — which was searching for Patagonia toothfish — caught the first adult colossal squid. Here was a picture of the haul:

colossal squid 2007

The world's first intact adult male colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) is brought on board the New Zealand fishing long-line boat 'San Aspiring' February 22, 2007 in the Ross Sea near Antarctica.

This was a big deal— the world's first-ever intact adult male. The squid ended up on display at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. You can see the museum's whole presentation hereAnd here's an artist's rendition of what a live colossal squid looks like:

colossal squid lateral view

Then, in December of 2013, the same ship San Aspiring managed to land yet another colossal squid. The AP reports that ship captain John Bennett thought "there was so much excitement about his previous catch, he thought he had better save the latest one for research." And that brought us to yesterday's dissection and examination.

Meanwhile, as the exhibit at Te Papa details, there are still all sorts of things scientist still don't know about colossal squid. No one's ever seen one swimming or catching prey. Also, while it's clear that the colossal squid has a giant ink sac, no one knows what the looks like or what it's for. (The colossal squid lives in the dark — some 3,000 feet down in the ocean — so it's unlikely that the ink acts as a smokescreen.)

There are both colossal squid and giant squid

By the way, there are at least two massive and mysterious squid species lurking in the oceans. The colossal squid is a bit shorter than the giant squid but much heavier (the colossal squid caught in 2007 weighs 1,000 pounds, whereas giant squid are thought to grow up to 600 pounds).

But the giant squid is also elusive. Back in 2004, David Grann wrote a terrific story for The New Yorker about one man's obsessive quest to find the giant squid. And, in 2013, the giant squid was caught on camera for the first time:

Here's a section from Grann's piece:

The creature seemed to be wrapping itself around the boat, which rocked violently. The floorboards creaked, and the rudder started to bend. Then, just as the stern seemed ready to snap, everything went still. "As it unhooked itself from the boat, I could see its tentacles," Ragot recalled. "The whole animal must have been nearly thirty feet long."

The creature had glistening skin and long arms with suckers, which left impressions on the hull. "It was enormous," Kersauson recalled. "I’ve been sailing for forty years and I’ve always had an answer for everything—for hurricanes and icebergs. But I didn’t have an answer for this. It was terrifying."

It's entirely possible that either giant squid or colossal squid were responsible for the old kraken legend among sailors, though no one really knows for sure.

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