Giant squid attacking lure
GIF: Edie Widder and Nathan Robinson

Scientists spotted an elusive giant squid in its deep-ocean habitat in American waters for the first time. These titanic, whale-battling beasts are rarely seen, so this sighting is a thrill for biologists and regular folk alike.

Giant squids are 30- to 43-foot cephalopods that inhabit the ocean at depths of 980 to 3,280 feet, where pressures are high and very little sunlight penetrates. Plenty of other strange beasts inhabit this realm, but the giant squid has long been the subject of myth, given its enormous size and the fact that dead ones occasionally wash up on shore.

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The squid is not often seen alive in its natural habitat. Scientist Edie Widder, founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), developed the camera that first filmed a giant squid near Japan’s Ogasawara archipelago in 2013. Last week, on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles south of New Orleans, scientist Nathan Robinson was watching footage taken by Widder’s Medusa system when a giant squid came along and attacked the camera’s fake jellyfish (actually a ring of lights), according to a NOAA field log. It was their fifth attempt to use the Medusa system to attempt to spot the beast in those waters.

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Widder created the camera system after she guessed that the squids were probably afraid of the loud, bright, remote-operated vehicles that were typically used to search for them, the New York Times reported. She and her team developed an optical “e-jelly” lure, which mimics the bioluminescence of the deep-sea jellyfish Atolla wyvillei. It also uses far-red light to illuminate the scene with a color that the squid can’t see. The jellyfish light is a “scream for help,” according to an ORCA release, which the animal uses to lure in other predators when caught, hoping to escape once its tormenter is distracted by the arriving hunter.

The researchers were able to use Widder’s system to spot the squid on video—the second such sighting ever and the first in North American waters. The video shows the squid approaching and touching the lure with this suction-cup lined arms before losing interest.

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The scientists sent the footage of the 10-foot squid to Michael Vecchione at the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Services - National Systematics Laboratory at the Smithsonian, according to the NOAA log. Vecchione replied that he was “nearly certain” they’d filmed a juvenile giant squid.

There’s still plenty scientists don’t know about giant squids, like how many there are, where they live, and how they behave. Though the evidence is scant, videos like this one help answer some of those questions. They know that sperm whales will eat giant squids and that they’ve been found around the world. As of yet, there’s only evidence of one giant squid species. And the giant squid isn’t even the heaviest squid—there’s an even more elusive “colossal squid” inhabiting the Antarctic waters’ depths.

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The squids’ huge size come from a phenomenon called deep-sea gigantism, in which invertebrates inhabiting the deep, dark ocean grow larger than you’d otherwise expect. Scientists have seen deep-sea gigantism in sea spiders, amphipods, shrimp, and jellyfish, according to another NOAA field log. Researchers explain the phenomenon as the creatures not having many predators and not having a set size when they stop growing, so long as they get enough to eat.

But the researchers point out that even in these seemingly remote locations, the squids aren’t isolated from humanity. Just a few miles from the video’s filming location is the Appomattox Deepwater oil rig.

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