KIDSPOST-SQUID

A passerby looks at a baby giant squid that washed up on a beach near Cape Town, South Africa. Scientists could not save the squid, but they are taking advantage of the rare opportunity to study this deep-sea creature. 

Giant squids are fantastical creatures that live in the crushing depths of the ocean and are rarely seen except in adventure books.

But this winter in South Africa (which was summer in the United States), a baby giant squid washed up on a beach northwest of Cape Town. It lay there, its grey-pink tentacles spread on the sand, and the beachgoers who first saw it realized it was breathing. It had even squirted some of its dark ink onto the sand, an action typically used to confuse predators and one of the reasons that scientist Wayne Florence called the discovery a "stunning find."

Days before, the giant squid probably had been swimming and searching for food. It would have used those fierce tentacles - the longest was 14 feet - to latch onto its prey and pull it closer to its beaklike mouth.

The animal died before it could be brought to the nearby Iziko South African Museum, where Florence works. The museum has about 20 giant squid specimens, including one that is twice as long as the new arrival. Most of the others were collected after being caught in fishing boats' nets, making the recent undamaged find special.

The youngster was probably 1 or 2 years old. Giant squids tend to have short lives, lasting about five years, Florence said.

While tissue samples from the latest discovery are being analyzed, scientists from around the world may gather in South Africa for additional research once coronavirus pandemic restrictions are lifted.

They and their African counterparts want to learn more about where giant squids hunt and what they eat. They hope that this fresh genetic material will help them determine whether there is one or more species of giant squid roaming the oceans. Research is difficult because the creatures live at depths that make them inaccessible.

Giant squids are part of a larger class of animals called cephalopods, which dominated the seas between 542 million and 66 million years ago (a span of time covering the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras). They were "wildly adaptable survivors," Florence noted. He is an expert in marine invertebrates (sea creatures without backbones). He primarily studies tiny ones called bryozoans. During his career he has identified 25 new bryozoan species.

"You would be amazed at how unusual microscopic animals at the opposite spectrum of giant squid can be," he said.

For now, the museum is keeping the baby giant squid in a facility where the temperature is 22 degrees below zero. (That's colder than your refrigerator's freezer.) Scientists may never determine why it died. But the lack of any visible injury means it didn't collide with trawlers or other fishing vessels.

"It was in impeccable condition for a stranded animal," Florence said.

Even though the specimen may help advance scientific understanding, he would have rather seen it alive in the ocean. It is in the dark, murky depths where its mysteries are best studied, according to Florence.

"The opportunity to unlock more of the secrets to the biology of giant squids," he said, "will hopefully prevent future strandings."