In Search of Giant Squid


A Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition

At left, the beak of Architeuthis, the giant squid (shown with a 10-cent U.S. coin for scale), from the collections of the Peabody’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology. The arrow (at right) indicates the location of the beak in relation to the entire animal. (Drawing modified from an illustration in “The Cephalopods of the North-Eastern Coast of America” by A.E. Verrill, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences, vol. 5, Dec. 1879–Mar. 1880.)


How much do we know about the giant squid?

These huge invertebrates inhabit every ocean and battle sperm whales for survival but have we ever seen one in its natural habitat, at depths between 100 and 3,000 feet?

Not yet.

Remains of Architeuthis, the giant squid, have been found in fishing nets, in the bellies of sperm whales, and washed ashore all over the world. The animal’s anatomy reveals much about its likely behavior, such as how it captures prey. Volleyball-sized eyes at the sides of its head scan its surroundings; once a likely target is spied, the eyes rotate forward to better judge the distance to its prey. By “snapping” its two tentacles together, the giant squid creates a virtually inescapable grip.

While giant squid share the body plan of all other squids, the scale of these animals is off the charts. The two largest specimens ever recorded were 60 feet long and weighed nearly a ton. Scientists recently captured tiny juvenile giant squid swimming off the coast of New Zealand. Such discoveries bring researchers closer to revealing the secrets of this living “sea monster.”

In Search of Giant Squid, based on the enormously popular permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, explores what is known about these animals and ongoing efforts to observe this legend in the wild. Visitors will examine the myths surrounding the giant squid, compare them with other squids and mollusks, and explore what is known about how they hunt, move, mate and defend themselves. The exhibition features an actual giant squid beak and suckers as well as examples of typical squid prey. Interactive components allow visitors to, among other things, compare their height to the size of a giant squid. The exhibition emphasizes the excitement of scientific research and exploration and includes a video presentation provided by the Discovery Channel.

Yale University has played an important role in the discovery of these animals. Among his many papers on giant squid in the 1870s, Yale’s first professor of zoology and one of the three original curators of the Peabody, Addison E. Verrill, described all 23 specimens then known from North American waters. His work provided most of what was known about this animal until the middle part of the 20th century. The exhibition will be augmented by some of Verrill’s specimens, together with illustrations, newspaper clippings and photographs of 19th century strandings of Architeuthis. Other mollusks will also be featured, including specimens of the giant octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini, acquired by another Yale worker, Grace Pickford.


The Return of the Giant Squid

After an absence of nearly 6 years, the Peabody’s famed model of a giant squid is once again on display, suspended from the ceiling in the lobby of the Museum. Removed from exhibit in 1999, the squid model went into temporary storage and was eventually hung in the main foyer of the Kline Biology Tower. The reinstallation of the squid model at the Peabody is prompted by the Museum’s upcoming new exhibition In Search of Giant Squid.

Although certainly the Peabody’s most accurate model of a giant squid, it is not the first to be displayed by the Museum. In the late 19th century Verrill, at that time acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on these elusive animals, designed and directed the construction of the world’s first model of a giant squid. His model, along with several copies, was made mainly of papier-mâché. One model was displayed by the Peabody (at the first Peabody Museum building, on High Street), one was sent to Harvard University, and another was provided to the Smithsonian Institution for eventual display at a fisheries exposition in Paris in 1883. None of these three original models survives today.

The Peabody’s giant squid model is a highly accurate, life-size representation of Architeuthis dux, one of three known species of giant squids. Construction of the model began in the early 1960s, when former Peabody Associates member Henry Townshend, Jr. conceived of and financed the project. After several years, and with the input of scientific experts, the model was eventually completed by museum technicians George Rennie, Rollin Bauer and Ralph Morrill. Made primarily of fiberglass and foam, with steel structural supports for the arms, the 37.5-foot model is based on an actual specimen of Architeuthis dux, part of which is still stored in the collections of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology—the tentacular arm of this specimen, which will be on display in the In Search of Giant Squid exhibition.

                                —By Eric A. Lazo-Wasem


For the exhibition In Search of Giant Squid, the Museum will be reinstalling its life-size model of the giant squid, which has not been on display for several years.


In Search of Giant Squid is presented by the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. It was developed in partnership with the Discovery Channel.