For centuries, fishermen from Norway and Greenland have told tales of a terrifying sea monster: the kraken. Supposedly, this vast creature has giant tentacles that can pluck you from your boat and drag you to the depths of the ocean. You can’t see it coming, because it lurks deep beneath you in the dark water. But if you suddenly find yourself catching a great many fish, you should flee: the kraken might be beneath you, scaring the fish towards the surface.
In 1857, the kraken began to move from myth to reality, thanks to the Danish naturalist Japetus Steenstrup. He examined a large squid beak, about 8 cm (3 in) across, that had washed up on Denmark’s shores several years earlier. Originally he could only guess at the overall size of the animal, but soon he was sent parts of another specimen from the Bahamas. When Steenstrup finally published his findings, he concluded that the kraken was real, and it was a species of giant squid. He named it Architeuthis dux, meaning “ruling squid” in Latin.
Only after Steenstrup had described the creature could scientists begin to unravel whether there was any truth to the old myths. Was this huge squid really as dangerous as the legends had led people to believe? Where did it come from, and what was it up to in the dark depths of the sea?The kraken has held a grip on people’s imaginations for hundreds of years. The Norwegian writer Erik Pontoppidan described one in detail in his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway. According to fishermen, Pontoppidan wrote, it was the size of a “number of small islands”, and its back appeared to be “about an English mile and a half.”
Its grasping tentacles were only part of the problem. “After this monster has been on the surface of the water a short time, it begins slowly to sink again, and then the danger is as great as before; because the motion of his sinking causes such a swell in the sea, and such an eddy or whirlpool, that it draws everything down with it.”
Different cultures had different names for similar-sounding monsters. Greek mythology describes the Scylla, a six-headed sea goddess who ruled the rocks on one side of a narrow strait. Sail too close and she would try to eat you. In Homer's The Odyssey, Odysseus was forced to sail close to Scylla to avoid an even worse monster. As a result, six of his men were lost to Scylla, who swung them up onto her cliff and "bolted them down raw".Even science fiction writers have got in on the act. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne describes a giant squid that is distinctly kraken-like. It "could entangle a ship of five thousand tons and bury it into the abyss of the ocean." So does the real giant squid live up to its legendary counterparts?
How did the monstrous giant squid - reaching school-bus size, with eyes as big as dinner plates and tentacles that can snatch prey 10 yards away — get so scarily big?Today, important clues about the anatomy and evolution of the mysterious giant squid (Architeuthis dux) are revealed through publication of its full genome sequence by a University of Copenhagen-led team that includes scientist Caroline Albertin of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole.
Giant squid are rarely sighted and have never been caught and kept alive, meaning their biology (even how they reproduce) is still largely a mystery. The genome sequence can provide important insight.“In terms of their genes, we found the giant squid look a lot like other animals. This means we can study these truly bizarre animals to learn more about ourselves,” says Albertin, who in 2015 led the team that sequenced the first genome of a cephalopod (the group that includes squid, octopus, cuttlefish, and nautilus).Led by Rute da Fonseca at University of Copenhagen, the team discovered that the giant squid genome is big: with an estimated 2.7 billion DNA base pairs, it’s about 90 percent the size of the human genome.
Albertin analyzed several ancient, well-known gene families in the giant squid, drawing comparisons with the four other cephalopod species that have been sequenced and with the human genome.She found that important developmental genes in almost all animals (Hox and Wnt) were present in single copies only in the giant squid genome. That means this gigantic, invertebrate creature - long a source of sea-monster lore - did NOT get so big through whole-genome duplication, a strategy that evolution took long ago to increase the size of vertebrates.So, knowing how this squid species got so giant awaits further probing of its genome.“A genome is a first step for answering a lot of questions about the biology of these very weird animals,” Albertin said, such as how they acquired the largest brain among the invertebrates, their sophisticated behaviors and agility, and their incredible skill at instantaneous camouflage.
“While cephalopods have many complex and elaborate features, they are thought to have evolved independently of the vertebrates. By comparing their genomes we can ask, ‘Are cephalopods and vertebrates built the same way or are they built differently?’” Albertin says.Albertin also identified more than 100 genes in the protocadherin family -- typically not found in abundance in invertebrates -- in the giant squid genome.
“Protocadherins are thought to be important in wiring up a complicated brain correctly,” she says. “They were thought they were a vertebrate innovation, so we were really surprised when we found more than 100 of them in the octopus genome (in 2015). That seemed like a smoking gun to how you make a complicated brain. And we have found a similar expansion of protocadherins in the giant squid, as well.”
Lastly, she analyzed a gene family that (so far) is unique to cephalopods, called reflectins. “Reflectins encode a protein that is involved in making iridescence. Color is an important part of camouflage, so we are trying to understand what this gene family is doing and how it works,” Albertin says.
“Having this giant squid genome is an important node in helping us understand what makes a cephalopod a cephalopod. And it also can help us understand how new and novel genes arise in evolution and development.”
“In a 1800s sighting, John Batchelor stated that as the monster attacked the ship, it “emitted a dark fluid which has a very powerful and noxious odour”, confirming the myth’s actuality”
“I shall swallow the whale and ship, empty the sea, and appear in red when you are cursed.” ——Akkorokamui
Once, spirits cursed Rebunge, a villager of Abuta Toyoura, to see the destruction of his town. They sent a part-spider-part-human creature, Yaoshikepu (ヤオシケプ), to fulfill the curse. Yaoshikepu caused rampant destruction throughout the town, slaughtering so many that the streets were filled with crimson blood. After hearing the townsfolk tremble with fear, the sea kami, Repunkamui, transformed Yaoshikepu into an octopus, and cast her into the sea.
After Yaoshikepu was cast into the sea, her size began to grow, eventually beginning to consume larger prey, such as whales and ships. One day, Akkorokamui gobbled up a boat full of fishermen. In her stomach, they called for help. Hearing the cries, Repunkamui poisoned Akkorokamui, giving her great pain. As Akkorokamui hollered in agony, the fishermen escaped. However, Akkorokamui learned to harness the venom, using it to attack her prey.
Probably no legendary sea monster was as horrifying as the Kraken. According to stories this huge, many armed, creature could reach as high as the top of a sailing ship’s main mast. A kraken would attack a ship by wrapping their arms around the hull and capsizing it. The crew would drown or be eaten by the monster. What’s amazing about the kraken stories is that, of all the sea monster tales we have, we have the best evidence that this creature was based on something real.
Tales of a huge, many armed, headed or horned sea creatures exist from ancient times. The Greek legend of the Scylla, a monster with six heads that Odysseus must sail past during his travels, is an example of this tradition. In 1555 Olaus Magnus wrote of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes…”
Although the term kraken is first found in print in Systema Naturae (Carolus Linnaeus - 1735), stories about this monster seem to date back to twelfth century Norway. These tales often refer to a creature so big that it is mistaken for an island or series of islands. Even as late as 1752, when the Bishop of Bergen, Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, wrote his The Natural History of Norway he described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world” with a width of one and a half miles. The Bishop also noted that the animal had starfish type protuberances: “It seems these are the creature’s arms, and, it is said, if they were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom.” Despite this Pontoppidan says that the most danger the kraken represented to ships came from the disturbance it made as it came to the surface or whirlpool as created as it descended below. Because fish were attracted to the vicinity of the kraken, he also notes, Norwegian fishermen would often fish over the creature, despise the risk to their ship and their lives. Later Kraken stories bring the creature down to a smaller, but still monstrous, size. Though early descriptions of the animal give a more crab-like appearance, by the 18th century it started showing up in drawings as a giant, many armed cephalopod (like an octopus or squid). In 1802 the French scientist Pierre Denys de Montfort stated in his book on the natural history of mollusks that the creature encountered by Norwegian sailors was the kraken octopus. Montfort even suggested that there was even a larger type of octopus than this, the colossal octopus that had been known to attack sailing vessels.
The Kraken of legend is probably what we know today as the giant squid. While a colossal octopus might also fit the description, the squid is thought to be much more aggressive and more likely to come to the surface where it might be seen by man. Though giant squids are considerably less than a mile and a half across, some are thought to be large enough to wrestle with a whale. On at least three occasions in the 1930’s they reportedly attacked a ship. While the squids got the worst of these encounters when they slid into the ship’s propellers, the fact that they attacked at all shows that it is possible for these creatures to mistake a vessel for a whale.
Is it a Kraken or a Giant Squid?
Could a large squid, say a hundred feet long and weighing two or three tons, attack a small ship by accident and capsize it? Given that some ocean crossing vessels at the time were very small (for example, Columbus's Pinta was only 60 feet in length), it certainly seems a possibility. Allegedly this is what occurred to sailing ship of the coast of Angola in the 17th century and the incident inspired the drawing at the top of the page.
For many years, scientists debated whether the giant squid was a swift and agile hunter like the powerful predator of legends or an ambush hunter. After decades of discussion, a welcome answer came in 2005 with the unprecedented film footage from Japanese researchers T. Kubodera and K. Mori. They filmed a live Architeuthis in its natural habitat, 900m deep in the North Pacific, showing that it is in fact a fast and powerful swimmer, using its tentacles to capture prey.Despite its size and speed, Architeuthis has a predator: the sperm whale. The battles between these titans must be frequent, since it is common to find scars on whales’ skins left by the squids’ tentacles and arms, which have suckers lined with sharp chitinous tooth-like structures. But Architeuthis doesn’t have the muscles in its tentacles to use them to constrict prey and it can never overcome a sperm whale in a “duel”. Its only option is to flee, covering its escape with the usual cephalopod ink cloud.
Although we now know it is not just a legend, the giant squid remains perhaps the most elusive large animal in the world, which has greatly contributed to its aura of mystery. Many people today are still surprised in learning that it really exists. After all, even after so much scientific research, the Kraken is still alive in popular imagination thanks to films, books and computer games, even if it sometimes turns up in the wrong mythology, such as the 1981 (and 2010) ancient Greek epic Clash of the Titans. These representations have come to define it in the public mind: a beast lurking in sunken ships waiting for reckless divers.
The strength of the myth became so strong that the Kraken could still be found in Europe’s first modern scientific surveys of the natural world in the 18th century. Not even Carl Linnaeus – father of modern biological classification – could avoid it and he included the Kraken among the cephalopod mollusks in the first edition of his groundbreaking Systema Naturae (1735).
But when, in 1853, a giant cephalopod was found stranded on a Danish beach, Norwegian naturalist Japetus Steenstrup recovered the animal’s beak and used it to scientifically describe the giant squid, Architeuthis dux. And so what had become legend officially entered the annals of science, returning our image of the Kraken to the animal that originated the myths.
After 150 years of research into the giant squid that inhabits all the world’s oceans, there is still much debate as to whether they represent a single species or as many as 20. The largest Architeuthis recorded reaches 18 metres in length, including the very long pair of tentacles, but the vast majority of specimens are much smaller. The giant squid’s eyes are the largest in the animal kingdom and are crucial in the dark depths it inhabits (up to 1,100 metres deep, perhaps reaching 2,000 metres).
Like some other squid species, Architeuthis has pockets in its muscles containing an ammonium solution that is less dense than sea water. This allows the animal to float underwater, meaning that it can keep itself steady without actively swimming. The presence of unpalatable ammonium in their muscles is also probably the reason why giant squid have not yet been fished to near extinction.
The Kraken is perhaps the largest monster ever imagined by mankind. In Nordic folklore, it was said to haunt the seas from Norway through Iceland and all the way to Greenland.
The Kraken had a knack for harassing ships and many pseudoscientific reports (including official naval ones) said it would attack vessels with its strong arms. If this strategy failed, the beast would start swimming in circles around the ship, creating a fierce maelstrom to drag the vessel down.
Of course, to be worth its salt, a monster needs to have a taste for human flesh. Legends say that the Kraken could devour a ship’s entire crew at once.
But despite its fearsome reputation, the monster could also bring benefits: it swam accompanied by huge schools of fish that cascaded down its back when it emerged from the water. Brave fishermen could thus risk going near the beast to secure a bounteous catch.
The history of the Kraken goes back to an account written in 1180 by King Sverre of Norway.
As with many legends, the Kraken started with something real, based on sightings of a real animal, the giant squid. For the ancient navigators, the sea was treacherous and dangerous, hiding a horde of monsters in its inconceivable depths. Any encounter with an unknown animal could gain a mythological edge from sailors’ stories. After all, the tale grows in the telling.
“The Cecaelia is a creature with origins in Asian and Native American mythology, legend and folklore. In particular, accounts of their existence are first recorded among such cultures as the Haida, Tligit, Tsimshian and Nootka tribes.Among these, the Native Americans seem to attribute a certain connection between the Octopus-People, and the Raven People.”
A man from the Raven tribe happened upon an Octopus-tribe woman with eight long braids of hair, who was using a stick to prod the shore of the beach. The Raven inquired of her: “Octopus, are you digging for clams?”. At first, the Octopus woman ignored him, but after the fourth time asking, she was fed up with his annoyance. Her hair turned back to tentacles, and she grabbed hold of the Raven. To spite him, Octopus answered him, “Yes. I am digging for clams. These are clams. And I am digging them.”
By then, the tide had begun to draw nearer. As the water rose higher and higher, Raven answered politely, yet nervously, “You have answered my question, Octopus. Thank you. Now, please, let me go”. Despite his struggling, Octopus held Raven fast, until the water grew higher and higher, and at last, Octopus left Raven for drowned. Raven’s people, having watched the whole ordeal from afar, did nothing, as they knew his nature as a trickster. The next day, he was back (having easily returned from the dead), but from then on, he never asked another question of Octopus again.