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Invertebrate of the Week #9 – Bigfin Squid (Magnapinnidae)

On November 7, 2007 a Shell Oil Company ROV team was working to retrieve drilling equipment on the seabed near the Perdido project in the Gulf of Mexico.  The project is a joint venture between Shell Oil, Chevron, and BP that harvests oil at a peak rate of 100 kboe/day from a well located around 2,450 meters below the ocean’s surface.  Working at such extreme depths means that encounters with strange and intriguing wildlife are common but the operators were completely taken aback as their camera panned across the creature in the video below:

Hovering near the oil well, perpendicular to the ground in the eerily-lit water, was a large squid with 10 articulated arms terminating in long, dangly tentacles.  “It looked like one of the aliens from the movie Independence Day,” stated Shell Senior Operations Coordinator Patrick Desrouleaux as he first saw the images.

The video quickly found its way into oil-industry email inboxes and was eventually passed on to Michael Vecchione of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who is based at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  Vecchione is an authority on deep sea cephalopods and was able to identify the squid as a member of the genus Magnapinna (Family: Magnapinnadae).

Vecchione should know.  In 1998 Vecchoine and University of Hawaii biologist Richard Young became the first to formally document a Magnapinna squid and laid the taxonomic foundation for their inclusion in the tree of life.  Later, in 2001, the duo got a major break when the ROV Tiburon operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) was able to record 10 minutes of crisp video footage of a Magnapinna squid at a depth of around 3380 meters.  When first encountered, the approximately 4-5 meter long organism was hovering perpendicular to the sea floor with its tentacles dangling along the substrate before it was startled by the vehicle and retreated into the water column.

Based on the observations from this video, along with those derived from 4 other encounters recorded by deep sea explorers since 1992, the pair were able to generate the first reports on adult Magnapinna squid in 2001.

Their work seems to indicate that Magnapinna squid enjoy a global distribution as they have been observed in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans as well as the Gulf the Mexico at depths between 1,940 – 4,734 meters.  They also appear to be relatively large, reaching lengths of 7 meters and are propelled through the water by two large terminal fins which also allow the squid to hover perpendicular to the substrate in a vertical position.

The most intriguing physical feature of the squid is perhaps the morphology of its arms.  Whereas most deep sea squid have been observed to possess 8 short arms and 2 long tentacles, Magnapinna squids appear to possess 10 indistinguishable arms that extend perpendicular to the body and abruptly bend at 90 degrees in an elbow-like kink, after which they transition into long, thin tentacles.

Because the squids have been observed dragging these tentacles across the seabed to retrieve small bits of food, it has been postulated that this may be their primary means of feeding.  However, researchers like Vechionne suspect that the morsel-feeding behavior may only be supplemental to a greater strategy of lying in wait for passing prey to become ensnared in their grasp.

Aside from these casual observations, not much more is known about Magnapinna squid and they remain mysterious and elusive denizens of the deep.  Yet, as scientific researchers and commercial explorers both get better at traveling through the depths, it is almost certain that we will soon have more information on what is apparently a geographically widespread and conspicuous creature.

References and Further Reading:

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