Anatomists Explore the Inner Wonders of Giant Squid

I want to dissect a giant squid. I never knew I did before I watched the Inside Nature’s Giants episode about the enormous cephalopod, but I do now.

Long-time readers know I’m an unabashed fan of the anatomical UK import – a show that delights in the innards of behemoths and what those organs can tell us about the natural history of the flayed giants. It’s refreshing to see the science put back in “science television.” (The first person to mention Mermaids will be keel-hauled.) As I wrote when I reviewed the show’s sperm whale episode, which aired in the US last January, “The program is one of the few within recent memory that I have actively enjoyed, and I am delighted by the show’s novel approach to providing viewers an in-depth look at the natural world.”

What truly makes Inside Nature’s Giants stand out is the show’s approach to speculation. We can learn a lot about the evolution and lifestyle of giant squid from their anatomy and comparison to their better-known cousins, but there are some basic aspects of the cephalopod’s natural history that we know almost nothing about.

How Architeuthis hunted is a mystery. Kraken mythology and Peter Benchley novels aside, we can’t say whether the giant squid actively pursued prey or waited in ambush for unfortunate little fish. Squid expert Steve O’Shea, who assists in the episode’s dissection, describes how giant squid might float in the water column, trailing their two long tentacles below until something blunders into them. O’Shea’s description is accompanied by a computer-generated vision of what this behavior would look like, but, the marine biologist points out, the scenario is entirely speculative. That’s what sets Inside Nature’s Giants apart from the glut of sub-par science programming on the air now – the show celebrates the natural history of huge animals, but is also honest about what we don’t know. Mystery is an essential part of science.

The giant squid episode airs on PBS tonight. And, in a week, US audiences will also see Inside Nature’s Giants: Camel. After something as spectacular as a giant squid, a camel initially feels like a bit of a letdown. The artiodactyls aren’t quite so alien or charismatic as enormous squid. But I shouldn’t have listened to my camel bias. The episode is one of the best in the series – Joy Reidenberg and Mark Evans carefully and enthusiastically deconstruct their camel specimen, but literally and in an educational sense.

Inside Nature’s Giants is science television at its best. The program is more than natural wonders accurately portrayed, but the joy Reidenberg and Evans take in probing the lives of giant animals reminds me of what inspired my love of science in the first place. I’m thrilled PBS had the guts to air this gory show.