BYLINE: By Faye Flam
SECTION: FEATURES MAGAZINE; Pg. E01
You don’t want to mess with a giant squid, even if you yourself are a giant
squid. Their embraces end with brutality, maiming and sometimes death. And yet,
in the darkest depths of the ocean, some irresistible force draws them together
When scientists from Japan released the first-ever video of this elusive
creature a few days ago, they gave but the smallest glimpse into its mysterious
life. Until now, all we knew of the giant squid we learned from those washed
ashore or caught by trawlers.
Steve O’Shea, a giant-squid expert from New Zealand, says males grow to about 30
feet, females to 40. They live in nearly total darkness several miles below the
surface, where they probably spend most of their time eating, fighting off
hungry sperm whales, and having sex.
From a human perspective, the sex part seems a little depraved and unpleasant.
The male uses his penis like a hypodermic needle, piercing the skin on the
female’s arms, O’Shea explains. With hydraulic force he injects 4-inch-long
tadpole-shaped “spermatophores.” They look like giant sperm, but really serve as
sperm vehicles. Thousands of actual sperm wriggle inside the head.
The penis is about five feet long when flaccid. “I’ve never seen one erect and I
hope I never will,” jokes O’Shea, who has been trying to capture a live giant
squid for nearly a decade.
The end of the penis has a cartilaginous lance, he says, the better for
stabbing. He pauses. Talking about this too much, he says, can get you labeled
as some kind of pervert.
And yet, how can we understand these creatures without understanding their
reproductive cycle? Their sex lives make them interesting – perhaps enough to
get human beings to care about them.
That is critical, O’Shea says, because we don’t know how many giant squid exist
or whether they stand a chance against the voracious deep-sea trawlers pulling
up every living thing in their paths – much of them just cast away afterward.
Deep-sea trawlers have killed at least 121 giant squid, but scientists suspect
many more deaths go unreported.
And yet, the dead ones have revealed what amazing creatures they are – far more
bizarre than any space alien dreamed up by science fiction. Scientists have seen
the bayonet penises and the sperm-infested arms. They’ve come across dead squid
with eggs or egg masses, which the female apparently secretes from under her
But how it all works remains a mystery. At some point, the female has sperm
under her skin and eggs outside her body. The leading theory, O’Shea says, is
that she cradles the eggs, bound by a kind of jelly, in her arms. A chemical
prompts the spermatophores to burst through her skin, “like parasitic worms.”
Worms with heads, that is, and when they slither out of her body, the heads
explode, he says, discharging the sperm to go wriggle into the eggs.
Is it possible, I ask, that squid don’t feel pain the same way we do, so in some
twisted way it could be good for her?
“It probably hurts” a lot, he says. And yet, the sea is full of other species of
squid with yet more brutal methods of insemination. One grabs the female in
skin-ripping hooks. Another gives her one hard stab in the back.
Not that it’s necessarily good for the males, either. The female is about 30
percent bigger and often bites off his penis or arms with her deadly beak. It
may be that one or both sexes don’t survive the encounter. Other squid species
automatically expire after sex. Instead of the petite mort, it’s just lights
O’Shea says he’s working with the Discovery Channel to make a documentary about
the lives of squid – one unlikely perhaps to be embraced by the religious right
the way March of the Penguinshas been.
Yet in their way, the giant squid uphold admirable family values, since they
risk life and limb to spawn the next generation. Of course, just as penguins
have been caught in gay unions, so some male squid have washed up with sperm
injected into their arms. “Homosexuality is rife among cephalopods,” O’Shea
But these squid probably aren’t really gay. They don’t have the luxury of
expressing a sexual preference. They’re just horny, he says. “And it’s really
dark down there.”
Contact staff writer Faye Flam at 215-854-4977 or firstname.lastname@example.org