Videos of giant squid are about to get even better, researchers say

April 28, 2021

New technology is bringing better images and greater insight into the lives of a creature of legend. (Edith Widder)

Scientists have only recently shown us video evidence of the giant squid in its deep-sea habitat — and now those same researchers say the stealthy undersea camera they used to capture the landmark recordings can be adapted to get an even crisper, more detailed view of the iconic creature.

A study published April 17 in Deep Sea Research Part I describes an unobtrusive camera platform that has allowed researchers to capture footage of "enigmatic but also charismatic" deep-sea squid all over the world, said lead author Nathan Robinson, a marine biologist based in Spain, in an interview with The Academic Times. Most notably, the camera system — known as Medusa — is behind two famous videos of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), as well as sightings of Pholidoteuthis adami and two other large unidentified squid. 

Medusa is designed to run silently, with no moving parts. It's also equipped with infrared light that most deep-sea creatures cannot see and a lure mimicking the bioluminescence of jellyfish to attract visual predators, such as squid. Edith Widder, an oceanographer and the inventor of Medusa, was part of the team that captured the first-ever footage of a live giant squid in its deep-sea habitat during a 2012 expedition off the coast of Japan — a landmark achievement in natural history. In June 2019, Widder, Robinson and others repeated the feat on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico, capturing the first video of a giant squid in U.S. waters. 

"So, what's really cool is that right now, the giant squid has been filmed in two different locations around the world, and both times it's been with the same camera," Robinson explained. "As further evidence, here's a bunch of other species of large, deep-sea squid that have been filmed with this camera. We threw it all together and said, 'Hey, very few people ever get footage of large squid in the water, the same camera system has done it twice with the biggest squid and several times with other large cephalopods.'"

But the technology is more than a decade old, Robinson said: "If you think about how much cameras have progressed in the past 10 years, we could apply those improvements to these deep-sea cameras. Instead of recording this black-and-white, admittedly kind of grainy footage, we can now get 4K or 8K cameras that really capture not only the form of the animal, but patterns on their skin and fine details that would help us with taxonomy. And we'll get more engaging footage with clearer, crisper looks that will help expose more audiences to deep-sea science." 

To those ends, the team is working on an advanced series of deep-sea camera systems that build off Medusa's basic concept, delivering higher quality images from much more portable devices; the camera platform is a heavy cubic meter of aluminum, painted black, that requires a boat with a winch. "Hopefully, by making this technology more compact and practical, it opens up deep-sea exploration to not just for people with large, ocean-going vessels with winches, but people who can take out a sailboat or dinghy and start exploring 1,000 meters down," Robinson said. 

By publishing the paper, the researchers hope to demonstrate Medusa's effectiveness and inspire other marine and conservation biologists to use the technology to study giant squid. Robinson comes to the project from a conservation biology background — having famously extracted a plastic straw and a plastic fork from the nostrils of sea turtles in a pair of viral videos — and he's eager to know more about the health of giant squid populations around the world. "This is a very important species," he said. "We're talking about one of the biggest predators in the deep sea, yet there's so little known." 

The giant squid remained one of the few extant megafauna to have never been photographed alive by the turn of the 21st century. Even then, the elusive creature was mostly pictured as a dying individual stranded in shallow water, or as incidental bycatch from deep-sea fishing trawls, according to the study's authors.

"It's this deep-sea kraken that captures our imaginations, but we have no idea how many there are out there," Robinson said. "We have no idea whether their populations are increasing or decreasing, [or] how much they're affected by climate change and plastic pollution and habitat destruction. I'd love to start developing ways to capture these animals on camera frequently enough that we do a long-term monitoring project and we can say, 'Hey, look, populations in the Atlantic are doing fine.'"

Researchers just don't know: It's possible the world's ocean ecosystems are changing in ways that are benefiting giant squid — or, in a worst-case scenario, they're changing in ways that are driving the species to extinction. "That would be a huge call to arms for the deep-sea research community, because if we don't fix this problem, we're going to lose this unique, emblematic species before we even understand anything about its basic biology," Robinson said.

The study, "Studying the swift, smart, and shy: Unobtrusive camera-platforms for observing large deep-sea squid," published April 17 in Deep-Sea Research Part I, was authored by Nathan J. Robinson and Annabelle Brooks, Cape Eleuthera Institute; Sönke Johnsen, Duke University; Lee Frey, Arctic Rays; Heather Judkins, University of South Florida; Michael Vecchione, National Museum of Natural History; and Edith Widder, Ocean Research & Conservation Association. 

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