Love in the deep: sex life of the giant squid revealed

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Scientists used to think that the most chaotic love lives in the world were lived by certain marsupials, supermodels and Premiership footballers. Not any more. New research has emerged which shows that when it comes to an eventful sex life, nothing can compare with a giant squid.

Until recently, little was known of these elusive animals, which live up to 1.5 kilometres down in the pitch-black depths.

But a series of strandings on the Atlantic beaches of Spain have brought five squid to the surface and, with them, revelations about their hitherto secret sexual shenanigans. Be warned: the marine biologists' findings are not for the squeamish.

Consider, courtesy of the team's article in the magazine of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, the following: a courting couple, both up to 18 metres long and equipped with eight legs and two tentacles.

In the red corner, a female one-third larger than the male and often distinctly resistant to his advances. In the blue corner, the eager lad, ready to deploy a penis eight feet long.

This is no ordinary eight-foot penis. It is hypodermic, and hence able to pierce the female's arm and impregnate her. It is also, say the scientists from the Institute of Marine Research in Vigo, unable to distinguish between the arm of a female, that of a passing male, or even its own limbs.

Hence, among the five carcasses of Architeuthis dux was a male that had been inseminated, although it is not known whether this was by himself or another who mistook him for a female.

The report is nothing if not explicit on these murky matters: "The male's sexual organ is actually a bit like a high-pressure fire hose and is normally nearly as long as his body, excluding legs and head.

"But having such a big penis does have one drawback: it seems co-ordinating eight legs, two feeding tentacles and a huge penis, whilst fending off an irate female, is a bit too much to ask, and one of the two males stranded had accidentally injected himself with sperm packages in the legs and body." The Spanish report came as Japanese scientists captured the first film of giant squid in the deep. Until now, the 600 or so observed over the past 400 years have been dead or dying ones that had floated to the surface.

But two experts, from the National Science Museum and the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association, both in Japan, took 550 pictures of squid at 900 metres as the cephalopods went for bait dangling beneath a camera.

These images contradicted previous ideas about how the squid caught their prey. It was thought that they hung at mid-depths, languidly trailing their feeding tentacles to catch a meal. But the squid filmed by the Japanese grabbed the bait, then coiled their tentacles around it.

Despite their size, giant squid are not top of the ocean food chain. In some parts of the world, they make up between 30 and 40 per cent of the diet of sperm whales. It is, then, perhaps a good job for their own survival that they keep mating with the enthusiasm that they do.