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One Legend Found, Many Still to Go

by William J. Broad

One Legend Found, Many Still to Go
A live giant squid (Architeuthis) measuring roughly 25 feet (8 meters) long attacks a baited fishing line off the Ogasawara Islands. Japanese scientists recently released the first-ever images of a live giant squid in the wild. Their series of photos offers clues about the way giant squid swim and hunt in the deep ocean.

The human instinct to observe nature has always been mixed with a tendency to embroider upon it. So it is that, over the ages, societies have lived alongside not only real animals, but a shadow bestiary of fantastic ones - mermaids, griffins, unicorns and the like. None loomed larger than the giant squid, the kraken, a great, malevolent devil of the deep. "One of these Sea-Monsters," Olaus Magnus wrote in 1555, "will drown easily many great ships."

Science, of course, is in the business of shattering myths with facts, which it did again last week when Japanese scientists reported that they hooked a giant squid - a relatively small one estimated at 26 feet long - some 3,000 feet down and photographed it before it tore off a tentacle to escape. It was the first peek humanity has ever had of such animals in their native habitat. Almost inevitably, the creature seemed far less terrifying than its ancient image.

Scientists celebrated the find not as an end, but as the beginning of a new chapter in understanding the shy creature. "There're always more questions, more parts to the mystery than we'll ever be able to solve," said Clyde F. E. Roper, a squid expert at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution.

Monster lovers take heart. Scientists argue that so much of the planet remains unexplored that new surprises are sure to show up; if not legendary beasts like the Loch Ness monster or the dinosaur-like reptile said to inhabit Lake Champlain, then animals that in their own way may be even stranger.

A forthcoming book by the noted naturalist Richard Ellis, "Singing Whales, Flying Squid and Swimming Cucumbers" (Lyon Press, 2006), reinforces that notion by cataloguing recent discoveries of previously unknown whales, dolphins and other creatures, some of which are quite bizarre.

"The sea being so deep and so large, I'm sure other mysteries lurk out there, unseen and unsolved," said Mr. Ellis, also the author of "Monsters of the Sea" (Knopf, 1994). Explorers, he said, recently stumbled on an odd squid more than 20 feet long with fins like elephant ears and very skinny arms and tentacles, all of which can bend at right angles, like human elbows. "We know nothing about it," Mr. Ellis said. "But we've seen it."

Historically, many unknown creatures have come to light purely by accident. In 1938, for example, a fisherman pulled up an odd, ancient-looking fish with stubby, limblike fins. It turned out to be a coelacanth, a beast thought to have gone extinct 70 million years ago. Since then, other examples of the species have occasionally been hauled out of the sea.

Land, too, occasionally gives up a secret. About 1900, acting on tips from the local population, Sir Harry H. Johnston, an English explorer, hunted through the forests of Zaire (then the Belgian Congo) and found a giraffe-like animal known as the okapi. It was hailed as a living fossil.

In 1982, a group of animal enthusiasts founded the International Society of Cryptozoology (literally, the study of hidden creatures) and adopted the okapi as its symbol. Today, self-described cryptozoologists range from amateur unicorn hunters to distinguished scientists.

At the Web site for the group,, there is a list of 15 classes of unresolved claims about unusual beasts, including big cats, giant crocodiles, huge snakes, large octopuses, mammoths, biped primates like the yeti in the Himalayas and long-necked creatures resembling the gigantic dinosaurs called sauropods.

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Also see:
Holy Squid! Photos Offer First Glimpse of Live Deep-Sea Giant

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