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Is the giant squid the new giant panda?

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Matt Walker Matt Walker | 09:20 UK time, Friday, 13 May 2011

Illustration from the original edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea depicting a giant squid

Illustration from the original edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea depicting a giant squid

Can a 13-metre long beastie, all tentacles and suckers, be a conservation icon for our time?

Scientists are proposing that the giant squid Architeuthis be emblemised and celebrated to help promote the conservation of marine diversity.

The giant squid would become the giant panda of the seas; a single species that captures the imagination, and stands for the world in which it lives.

It would become a rallying point for those seeking to protect life under the waves, the fish and the whales, the corals and crustaceans, an abundance of marine invertebrates and creatures we perhaps have yet to discover.

It could even become a marketing tool, a brand, a philosophy.

Rather than have to make complex arguments about marine food webs, carrying capacities, life histories and bycatch, people could support the saving of the seas by wearing a giant squid badge, while giant inflatable squids could be blown up at events designed to raise marine conservation funds. Anyone fancy running a marathon in a squid costume trailing eight arms and two 10-metre long tentacles?

It’s a far less ridiculous idea than it sounds.

Many people are already attuned to the fate of marine mammals, galvanised by the whaling debate, whale song soundtracks and the actions of organisations such as Greenpeace. The overfishing crisis gets good air time, and the epic journeys made by sea turtles prick something in the public consciousness.

However, most people aren’t aware that about 92% of marine species are invertebrates – animals that lack backbones. And though estimates vary a lot, there may be anywhere between 178,000 and 10 million such species living beneath the waves.

Even if people are aware these species exist, animals with exoskeletons or shells, such as corals, crabs and clams, tend not to tug at the heart strings.

Not like the giant panda, which has become the conservation icon for land animals.  

The emblem of conservation charity WWF, by the charity’s own admission the panda is recognised worldwide as a symbol of conservation and sustainable development, and is perhaps better known than the work of the organisation itself.

Natural history author Henry Nicholls, who has written extensively about the giant panda’s allure, has recently published a comment piece in the journal Nature highlighting how different conservation organisations have embraced animal emblems.

His piece talks of how the marketing of these emblems has evolved over time, but it’s instructive to read how.

To quote:

Logos began to portray species that did have a clear conservation message. The dodo, the icon of extinction, was a perfect image for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded in 1963 to support Gerald Durrell's pioneering conservation-focused captive work at Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands. There were also more upbeat emblems. The moving tale of Elsa the lioness (star of Joy Adamson's novel Born Free and its 1966 Hollywood adaptation and memorable soundtrack) made her an exemplary face of the Born Free Foundation, established in 1984 to campaign against zoos and promote conservation in the wild. The RSPB's success in recreating the habitat suitable for breeding avocets in Britain during the 1940s made this species an obvious choice as an emblem.

Hence why marine biologist Angel Guerra of the Institute for Marine Investigation in Vigo, Spain and colleagues now argue that the marine world needs its own emblem.

In the journal Biological Conservation, they lay their reasoning for why it should be the giant squid.

At first glance, this huge invertebrate seems an odd choice.

Adult Architeuthis dux in the wild (image: Dr Tsunemi Kubodera)

A rare glimpse of an adult Architeuthis dux in the wild (image: Dr Tsunemi Kubodera)

We know virtually nothing about it; the first pictures of a live, adult giant squid were only caught on camera in the wild in 2005.

The 30 or so specimens landed to date reveal a huge animal up to 13 metres long with ten arms, two of which are massively elongated. The squid has a large beak which is uses to crush its prey. But we still know little about how it lives.

However, it does fit the requirements of an emblematic species, say Guerra’s team.

The animal that likely inspired the ancient mariners’ myth of the Kraken that appeared out of the deep ocean, the giant squid has long attracted the public’s attention.

It still has the power to awe: people flock to see the few specimens held in museums around the world, and giant squid get a significant amount of press coverage.

Architeuthis may also act as a bellwether for human impacts on the ocean.

As carbon dioxide levels increase in the atmosphere, more dissolves into the oceans, resulting in a fall in pH.

This increase in ocean acidity could make it harder for squid to produce small structures called statoliths which they need for movement and balance. That means more giant squid could float the surface, where they would die. More acidic oceans could also affect squid respiration and embryo development.

Giant squid, Architeuthis sp., modified from an illustration by A.E. Verrill, 1880

Giant squid modified from an illustration by A.E. Verrill, 1880

Although Architeuthis has been found worldwide (677 specimens recorded to date from the southwest Pacific to the northwest Atlantic), it mainly appears in areas with submarine channels or canyons that cut across the continental shelf.

These deep canyons are biodiversity hotpsots, and are vulnerable to deep sea fishing and dredging. Giant squid are also vulnerable to both, as well as pollution and potentially even seismic surveys or sonar.

The logic suggests therefore that if we learn to love, celebrate and protect the giant squid, we could also protect an entire unique marine ecosystem, and all the other more recognisable animals living within.

So is it a reasonable proposition?

Just a small population of reclusive giant pandas have enthralled us for decades now. Yet the species became the emblem of the conservation movement, not because it best represented the issues at stake, but because it was black and white.

As Henry Nicholls recounts in his Nature article:

“In 1961, as the WWF's founders mulled over the choice of their symbol in a plush town house in London's Belgravia, the most important consideration was that it should reproduce well on the organization's letterhead. With colour printing then out of the question for a fledgling charity, this narrowed the options to a shortlist of black-and-white species, and the popular panda emerged.”

So why not too the giant squid?

It isn’t as cuddly-looking as a giant panda.

But this outsized, almost monstrous sea creature of lore is perhaps the more enigmatic, secretive, bizarre and fascinating animal. It may also better represent the ecosystem in which it lives, and the threats to it.

Does it have what it takes for you to fall in love with it, and grant it emblematic status? Would you help save the giant squid, in a bid to save the seas?


  • Comment number 1.

    I've had nightmares about giant squids ever since reading Biggles and the Willard Price Adventure books...I can't see how it'll ever command the widespread appeal of the 'cuddly' giant panda!

  • Comment number 2.

    The Blue whale would surely be a more readily acceptable image and portray how the largest living creature on this earth is now swimming in the seas we are fast making inhabitable for ALL marine creatures to live in.

  • Comment number 3.

    For a new logo what about a giant squids tentacles wrapped around its arch enemy the sperm whale?

  • Comment number 4.

    Fascinating creature - It deserves to be saved for its sheer size and complexity alone - an emblem? not sure, above suggests the blue whale, i think this is quietly becoming the unofficial emblem however what harm can another do.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think architeuthis is a good symbol to represent the limits of human knowledge and the unknown impacts of our actions - we still have little information on deep oceans and the complexity marine ecology.

  • Comment number 6.

    Surely the best emblem for marine life would be an orca - it's got the same black and white bonus of the panda, plus it's already been emblazoned on the public consciousness of a generation of children and their parents in Free Willy.

  • Comment number 7.

    Id like to see the shark used, since Jaws the plight of the shark has been sealed. They are the top predator in most areas taking weak or injured animals and keeping other more harmful predators in check. (See the humbolt squid)

    Imagine if the British decided that they wanted to use panda in old herbal medicines or in a soup at a wedding there would be uproar yet this is the fate that we are allowing the shark to.

    Save the Shark and we will save the Squid

  • Comment number 8.

    I think we should go one step further and use Cthulhu as the mascot for marine diversity.

  • Comment number 9.

    Perhaps a seahorse. An extremely interesting species, notoriously difficult to keep and breed in captivity, cute and perfect for logo purposes.

  • Comment number 10.

    The irony of the Giant Panda being a symbol of conservation, is that it almost staunchly refuses to breed, and even though it is evolved to eat meat, also chooses not to.

    I know this is an over simplistic assessment, but it seems we are trying to save a species who does not want to be saved.

    I do agree that the Blue Whale would be an ideal icon, and was my first thought when marine conservation was mentioned.

  • Comment number 11.

    I actually find the giant panda to be a terrible symbol for conservation. This is an animal which isn't dying out so much through human destruction of its habitat, it's dying out because it headed down an evolutionary cul-de-sac of strict specialisation. I find the giant squid, and sharks as someone mentioned above, far more evocative symbols. These creatures are top predators and would be flourishing if not for our actions.

  • Comment number 12.

    I agree with the comment from Fll; Sharks would be a better mascot, they need positive press to change peoples perceptions. More people are injured in attacks by domestic dogs than they are by sharks.
    And they are just one of many species whose populations are being destroyed because of the ridiculous belief by certain cultures that ground up bone or fin improves virility.

  • Comment number 13.

    I love them pan fried on olive oiled and lightly seasoned. This one would a feast for a few days... or weeks.
    I am sure this giant one could be spared as it won't fit my frying pan! :-)

  • Comment number 14.

    ok so now its "give a quid to save a squid" ?

  • Comment number 15.

    There a lot of suggestions of an alternitive icon than the giant squid.

    I'll be voting for the Blue Whale.

  • Comment number 16.

    Does it taste good? :)

  • Comment number 17.

    you cant have this creature as the emblem.

    scientifically it may be more approriate, but the general public want something cute they can imagine hugging

  • Comment number 18.

    Good Lord! Someone needs to know more about the giant squids. The Humboldt Squid, native to the west coast of Central America and ranging clear up to Southern California is a fearsome and dangerous creature. Seasoned spearos who treat sharks with nothing more than respect will leave the water immediately when the Humboldts show up. They are ravenous predators, capable of biting lemon sized chunks out of a human and unlike shark attacks, they don't leave anything behind because they feed in packs. I don't think this has been well thought out.

  • Comment number 19.

    While cute cuddly creatures capture humans hearts & imagination, this often leads to the same creatures being captured for the pet trade & then inadvertently killed via ignorance &/or subsequent loss of interest. Think: seahorse, sea-star, clownfish, coral, etc. or the terrestrial example of the star tortoise.

    As such, the species selected as a wildlife conservation symbol shouldn't be too cute, or if not, it shouldn't be small enough or physically-accessible enough for humans to smuggle, handle, or slaughter as exotic dinner. In this respect, the elusive giant squid is a good choice. Its mysteriousness, 8 sucking arms, beach ball eyes & exaggerated size (as the largest invertebrate on Earth) easily stir up human imagination.

    Besides, the giant squid is already the inspiration for its mythical counterpart -- the legendary Kraken as commonly featured in popular culture such as 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. And unlike 'Finding Nemo', parents can't simply go to aquarium shops to buy a giant squid for junior. Neither is it convenient or practical to keep a 900kg, bus-sized (18m), many-armed marine creature as a pet.

  • Comment number 20.

    Panda-ing to public taste may not be the right path. Explaining that a marine ecosystem is a fragile living entity made up of a large number of interacting species requiring a healthy environment is more important than asking people to cuddle a squid. The key issue has to be species diversity.

  • Comment number 21.

    The killer whale (Orcinus orca), seems a real possible option. Its black and white so can easily be printed on letters, just as in the case with the panda.
    Everyone knows and likes killer whales due to their appearance at sea world parks across the world. Personally I would much rather support a whale then a squid and I'm sure others will agree. So +1 for the Killer Whale!

  • Comment number 22.

    i have a few ideas. a dolphin because they are seen as friendly and fun. a penguin as they are awesome and are loved by everyone and even though they aren't sea life they will be affected. or since they are going for the invertabrates being the main component of the of marine life they could go for octopode as they have received lots of press coverage due to paul the octopus and everyone loves octopode.

  • Comment number 23.

    As a SYMBOL of marine conservation, the giant squid is an excellent choice, but as a LOGO for same, it's a terrible idea. I'm a graphic designer, and intrigued by the idea, I even did a few scribbles: it quickly becomes apparent that the length of the squid's tentacles pose a problem. A logo needs to be able to work small, on business cards, letterheads, badges, pens etc. While it's possible to design an eye-catching large image of a giant squid, that would look great on a T-shirt, a similar design would not look as good reduced down to a few millimetres across, due to the loss of detail. It would not be instantly apparent what the object was, which defeats the point of using it as a logo.

    A better choice would be the sea turtle.

  • Comment number 24.

    16. At 21:00pm 13th May 2011, mscracker wrote:

    Does it taste good? :

    Only if you like ammonia with your seafood

  • Comment number 25.

    The giant squid is a creature of such awesome proportions and yet is so delicate that I think it is a perfect emblem for marine conservation. The panda may be cute but all it makes me think about is zoos, other "cute" marine life would not do nearly such a good job as the squid at embodying the mystique of the oceans.

  • Comment number 26.

    I think it is a disgrace that we need to be consulting our aesthetics for this...both specimens, the panda, and the giant squid are as beautiful and wonderful as each other. They are both products of a long and challenging evolution, therefore the time scale involved should simply eradicate any notion of one organism being 'better' than another. Forget our ridiculous emotions that have got us nowhere, think scientifically and the world with grow with efficiency and natural love, instead of this fallacy that we call love, and community spirit. Together with this most animals with not be revered, or feared, each will be a product of nature, one which we can respect. We claim to respect our lives, a product of millions of years of evolution, so why not a fly, a giant squid, etc?

    All animals need communities, we cant just destroy trees, as that will destroy other animals. Look at the bigger picture and our world will become picture perfect again....

  • Comment number 27.

    I wonder how many people in favour of preserving animals also eat them?

  • Comment number 28.

    Though the giant squid has its drawbacks as a conservation icon, recent photographic evidence proving its existence, along with its mythic past lend it importance. I wonder if the decision to use a panda as the WWF icon was also informed by contemporary efforts to prove its existence. I remember reading a book about Ruth Harkness who was supposedly the first to bring a captive panda to America, and I believe it was the 1930-40s.

  • Comment number 29.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 30.

    To respond to Northern_Dunedain, pandas are not cuddly. They can be rather 'animal' at times. The point is not to choose a 'cuddly' critter, but to choose one that the general public responds well to, and will embrace. I, for one, applaud the decision to use the giant squid. It captures my imagination, thus the concept works.

  • Comment number 31.

    The Octonauts (on Cbeebies) have an excellent episode on the Giant Squid. In fact lots of their stories are rather good. They're scientifically accurate c.f. Nina & the Neurons. I watch that show only to count how many factual inaccuracies they can pack into a single episode.

  • Comment number 32.

    I'd go with #2. The blue whale is far more endangered and far more 'marketable'. Truly giant squid are very rare (or at least rarely seen) but the 1-2M Humboldt variety are all too common (and very, very nasty... they'll bite your hand clean off and can clear out huge quantities of fish) and actually spreading across the Pacific
    I read a few years ago that there are more tons of squid in the sea than tons of human on land.

  • Comment number 33.

    27. At 18:50 17th May 2011, deadpoetlive wrote:
    I wonder how many people in favour of preserving animals also eat them?
    Me for one. If we don't preserve the squid I won't be able to get delicious calimari and garlic mayo. I often make a semi-serious point that I know will offend a certain group of people by pointing out that if Panda steak tasted good there'd be no shortage of Panda. In itself its tongue in cheek designed to get a response but its worth pointing out that chickens, pigs, cows, sheep etc are in plentiful supply precisely BECAUSE we eat them. If the whole of the UK turned vegetarian the only place you might see a pig is in the zoo.

  • Comment number 34.

    Giant squid scare and intimidate me.
    I wont be donating my hard earned money to save one of them!

    I try and live my life by not helping anything that can kill me.
    even pandas.


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