Seamonsters

Two giant squids, a giant octopus, and a giant clam have been integral—and awe-inspiring—parts of the Museum’s zoology exhibits at various times in the past. Two of them still exist; two are long gone.

Presumed as late as the 19th century to have been mythical sea monsters, giant squids suddenly became real objects of scientific study in the 1870s when, for some still unknown reason, dozens of them, either dead or dying, were caught in fishermen’s nets or washed ashore on the beaches of Newfoundland, Canada. In 1873 a 24-foot-long arm of a recently recovered specimen of Architeuthis, the world’s largest invertebrate animal, was sent to Yale Professor Addison Emery Verrill, the Peabody Museum’s curator of zoology. Verrill published a comprehensive treatise on the squids in 1879.

In 1877, Verrill had designed the first life-sized model of a giant squid—40 feet long—and hired J.H. Emerton, a Boston arachnologist and scientific illustrator, to make it in papier-mâché for display in the first Peabody Museum building. He also had Emerton make a model of a giant California octopus. This illustration, drawn by Emerton himself, shows the construction of the octopus in a basement room of the old Peabody Museum.

Dating to about 1894, this is the only known photograph (below) of the Invertebrate Zoology exhibit room on the third floor of the old Peabody Museum. The body of the giant squid model is hidden by the case on the left. Only the arms are visible; the two longest ones extend all the way across the picture. The octopus is in the upper left. Also visible is the Tridacna—a real 406-pound giant clam—on a stand in the foreground, with a giant crab, also real, on the table behind it, for good measure.

The giant squid model next appeared at the far end of the old Invertebrate Hall of the current Peabody Museum building, with its two longest arms bent backwards. This squid was discarded in the 1960s when the Invertebrate Hall was renovated. The octopus had previously disappeared, probably when the old building was demolished in 1917, and all that remains of it is a small piece of one tentacle—gray, with orange, crimson, and brown dots—housed in the invertebrate zoology collection.

As part of Museum renovations in the 1960s, a new giant squid model was made based on an actual specimen of Architeuthis dux, part of which—a tentacled arm—is stored in the collections of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology (this specimen was displayed in the In Search of Giant Squid exhibition in the fall of 2004).

Long-time friend of the Museum Henry Townshend, with research and construction assistance from Edward Migdalski and Museum preparators George Rennie, Ralph Morrill and Rollin Bauer, surmounted technical difficulties to complete this colorful 37.5-foot life-sized figure of plastic foam, steel and fiberglass. This model hung in the Invertebrate Hall until that hall was completely dismantled in 1993, then filled the ceiling of the Museum’s lobby for a brief time before moving to the 1994 exhibition Large as Life, where it was displayed with the Tridacna. The giant clam is now in storage, but the squid model moved from its temporary location hanging from the ceiling in the lobby of Yale’s Kline Biology Tower back to its former home suspended in the Peabody Museum’s lobby.