In a viral video, a paddleboarder wrangles with a giant squid off the western coast of South Africa. The squid limply reaches its tentacles around the board, causing its human passenger to jump ship. The incident, which occurred in March, was neither a rescue mission nor a gesture of friendship the paddleboarder, James Taylor, tells Earth Touch News Network.
Taylor knew instantly that the squid wasn’t long for this world. “I wanted to try get it to the beach for research purposes before it got more damaged by seals in the area,” he explains, saying he could tell based on lethargy and bite marks that the squid was dying.
Giant squids, genus Architeuthis, live in the deep ocean and are rarely seen in shallow waters unless they are dead or nearly dead, Mike Vecchione, an invertebrate zoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, tells Inverse. And this one was very badly beat up. “The skin was abraded, and it had some chunks missing out of it.”
The animal might have been chomped on by a predator or fallen ill — or it may have been maimed by some particularly rough sex, Vecchione speculates. “We don’t know how giant squid go about mating, and it could be that the female beats up the male pretty badly. The females will get a lot bigger than the males when they’re fully mature.”
Many species of cephalopods die once they’ve reproduced, and it could be that giant squid are no different. “In some cases, the males are in pretty bad condition by the time they’re done reproducing. And the females then go on, lay their eggs, and by that point they’re in pretty bad condition, too.”
One clue that giant squid lead a particularly violent sex life is what happened after Taylor dragged the squid on shore and severed its head in order to ease any potential suffering. The animal’s sex organ — a penis as long as its tentacles — began ejaculating worm-like things called spermatophores, which are packages of sperm and proteins that enter the female’s body by burrowing right into her flesh.
This is not an unusual phenomenon in a dying mature male, says Vecchione. “It might have something to do with the way they normally reproduce. If the females beat up the males pretty badly, that may be the cue for them to go ahead and eject their spermatophores.” After all, why would ejaculation normally accompany death if males did not frequently die in the company of a female?
Giant squids may look squishy, but they are in fact equipped with some pretty terrifying equipment, besides their several-foot penises that eject flesh-burrowing sperm. They are strong packages of dense muscle that regularly do battle with sperm whales. Their tentacles are covered in hundreds of suckers, each lined in rows of razor-sharp teeth. They are equipped with a hard, sharp beak, which they use to crunch through crustacean shells and other unfortunate prey. “If they managed to bite you with one of those, it could take a huge chunk out of you; they could take off a finger if they wanted to,” says Vecchione.
But approaching one that’s mangled and barely moving from a paddleboard is probably relatively low-risk, he says. You might get nicked by one of the sharp bits, as Taylor says he was, but the animal probably won’t have the strength to really attack you. “I don’t think it was foolish to approach it, but on the other hand, I don’t think it would be a bad thing to not approach it, either,” says Vecchione.
Documented giant squid sightings are rare, though becoming less so as more people venture into the ocean with cameras. But their strange mating rituals will remain largely shrouded in mystery, at least until we can recruit enough deep-sea robots to catch an unsuspecting couple in the act.