New Zealand has a rich and diverse assemblage of squid and related groups, with more than 85 species.
Most squid are open-sea animals, although a few, like cuttlefish, spend their lives mainly on the sea floor. The vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis) has been collected throughout the depths of the ocean and close to the seabed. The tiny ram’s horn squid (Spirula spirula) has an internal, coiled shell for buoyancy, allowing it to move up and down in the water with very little effort. Although they live far from shore, their presence in New Zealand waters is evident from the quantities of empty shells that wash ashore following their death after breeding.
Adult giant squid (Architeuthis dux) come to breed in deep waters around New Zealand. Females grow to 13 metres from tail to tentacle tip, and can weigh 300 kilograms. Their huge eyes – about 30 centimetres across – are designed to pick up flashes of light from fish and smaller squid. It was once thought that they were fearsome hunters, but based on their weak musculature, it is likely that they wait in the depths for passing prey.
In 1879, Thomas Kirk vividly described a washed-up giant squid: ‘the beast had eight tentacles, as thick as a man’s leg at the roots; horrid suckers on the inside of them; two horrid goggle eyes; and a powerful beak between the roots of the arms. His head appeared to slip in and out of a sheath. Altogether he was a most repulsive-looking brute. … All the natives turned out to see him … they say that these large “whekes” are very apt to seize a man and tear his inside out.’ 1
Giant squid in Kaikōura canyon
A massive submarine canyon extending out into the ocean, just south of Kaikōura, is the legendary home of a monster squid named Whakatere. This tradition may have some basis in truth, for giant squid larvae have been found in waters off the east coast of the South Island, although live adults remain elusive.
Larger and more fearsome-looking than giant squid, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) may frequent New Zealand’s southern waters. One juvenile was captured in 2003 off Macquarie Island, 900 kilometres south of New Zealand. This animal is estimated to reach 15 metres in length, but as no adult has yet been caught this figure has still to be confirmed. The colossal squid’s body shape and swivel-hooked suckers suggest that it is a powerful predator.
Cephalopods are known around New Zealand to depths of 3,150 metres. However, New Zealand’s waters reach depths of more than 9,000 metres, and have been only poorly sampled. Undoubtedly, many deep-sea species, possibly including squid, await discovery. However, despite the importance of these animals in marine food webs, their diversity, and the fascination they hold for humans, very little is known of their biology. Several recently discovered cephalopods are near to extinction.