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(Dandelion pollen grain, Taraxicum officinale) The scientific study of pollen is called palynology and can be used by forensic scientists to discover clues at crime scenes.

Giant squid goes on display

28 February 2006

A monstrous giant squid goes on display at the Natural History Museum.

The giant squid, Architeuthis dux, is 8.62m long and was caught off the coast of the Falkland Islands in March 2004. Called Archie, it can be seen through the Museum's Spirit Collection Tours , booked in advance.

Rarely seen
Suckers on the tentacles of the giant squid Architeuthis dux

Suckers on the tentacles of the giant squid Architeuthis dux

Scientists know very little about these creatures and much of what they do know comes from the remains of dead or dying specimens, many retrieved from the stomachs of sperm whales.

Archie is not the largest giant squid ever caught , that record belongs to an 18.5-metre specimen caught in Island Bay, New Zealand in 1880.

Archie was caught alive and is almost complete making it a very important specimen for research. Initial investigations suggest that Archie is female although this will be confirmed by future studies.

Only the second largest creature

The giant squid is the second largest living invertebrate, the first being the colossal squid,  Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni , although no mature specimens of Mesonychoteuthis have been found yet.

Museum scientist, Oliver Crimmen, measures the giant squid at 8.62 metres long.

Museum scientist, Oliver Crimmen, measures the giant squid at 8.62 metres long.

Mythical sea-dwelling beasts

The giant squid has large eyes, a powerful beak, thick tentacles and dangerous-looking 'teeth'-filled suckers. Their peculiar appearance is thought to have lead to stories from as early as 1555 about mythical beasts living in the sea.

How to preserve a giant squid

Archie arrived at the Museum as a huge pink, folded blob. After DNA samples had been taken it was put into a freezer while Museum scientists, led by mollusc curator Jon Ablett, decided how best to proceed.

'We decided the best solution was to keep it as a 'wet' preserved specimen, complete and undissected due to the scarcity of the species in museum collections worldwide', said Jon.

A temporary home

A special wooden container, lined with rubber, was built and filled with 3,250 litres of water and 125kg of rock salt to imitate seawater. Alcohol doesn't work very well on very large specimens so a final 350 litres of the preservative formalin was added to the mixture.

Defrosting the squid
Museum scientist, Jonathan Ablett, injecting the giant squid with a formol-saline solution.

Museum scientist, Jonathan Ablett, injecting the giant squid with a formol-saline solution.

Next, the squid was defrosted, a long and complicated process. The challenge was to make sure the dense mantle (the outside body of the squid that fits like a hat over its real body and organs) head and delicate tentacles all defrosted at the same time without any part drying out.

Unravelling the tentacles

After 3 days the squid was completely defrosted and Jon's team was finally able to unravel the tentacles and measure it.

The whole squid was then injected with around 15 litres of 10% solution of formol-saline to protect the inner parts. It was then lowered into its temporary home.

Final resting place

The final home for Archie is a specially made acrylic tank filled with a 10% solution of formol-saline as a preservative.

The tank was constructed in California by Casco Ltd., the people who made the tanks for Damien Hirsts' various artworks of animals in formaldehyde.

The tank is 9m and 45cm long and stands on a 1-metre stainless steel stand so that the giant squid can be viewed from any angle.

You can see the giant squid when you book a Spirit Collection Tour - visit any information desk on arrival at the Museum or call 020 7942 5011.