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This is a bedfellow column by Dr. Danna Staaf, a science biographer with a PhD in abyssal analysis from Stanford University. Her aboriginal book, Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, chronicles the 500-million-year evolutionary adventure of these alluring animals. She additionally blogs at The Cephalopodiatrist.

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Giant squid are the sea’s best monsters, tentacles down. For affirmation we charge attending no added than the logo of this actual website. But did you apperceive that our admired Architeuthis descends from a admirable band of sea monsters—that Archy’s ancestors, in fact, may accept been the aboriginal animals anytime to arete the name “monster”?

The byword “prehistoric sea monster” ability arouse to apperception an ichthyosaur or megalodon, but these are johnny-come-latelies to the underwater scene. Megalodon showed up a bald 23 actor years ago. Ichthyosaurs acquired afterpiece to 250 actor years ago, which may assume appealing old (okay, it is) until you accede the age of the aboriginal cephalopod: 450 actor years.

I’ll accept that initially cephalopods were no monsters. Snail-like, they lived central shells that abstinent a few centimeters at most. But these shells independent a arresting evolutionary innovation: sealed-off accommodation that could be drained of aqueous and abounding with afloat gas.

This airiness freed cephalopods from the constraints of their abundant shells, acceptance them to ability amazing sizes. No amount how big the carapace grew, its weight was automatically account by added gas-filled chambers.

Paleozoic Giants. Image from: Christian, et al. “Normal giants? Temporal and latitudinal accouterment of Palaeozoic abyssal bearcat gigantism and all-around change.” Lethaia 48.2 (2015): 267-288 (PDF)

Endoceras giganteum, for example, grew up to 3.5 meters, best than a basketball bandage is tall. It was the better beastly the apple had yet seen. I feel assured calling this 450-million-year-old barbarian one of the planet’s aboriginal monsters.

But how did we get from Endoceras to Architeuthis? Is one a absolute antecedent of the other, or are they abroad cousins n-times-removed? And what became of that absurd shell?

We charge a ancestors timberline for Endoceras, Architeuthis, and aggregate in between—in added words, a cephalopod phylogeny. For over a century, scientists accept been alive to reconstruct such a phylogeny with affirmation from fossils, embryos, DNA and more. I fabricated an attack to amalgamate the best contempo assignment into a distinct drawing, with lots of admonition from paleontologists and the allowance duke of an artisan who able my blowzy sketchwork (and put in those affable eyes).

Phylogenetic tree, created by Danna Staaf and C.A. Clark

Endoceras was one of the Orthocerida, which you can acquisition bottomward in the Ordovician, in the lower right. Today’s behemothic squid booty pride of place—with their abate siblings—top and center. As for the rest…

From Cambrian through Silurian times, cephalopods all wore their shells on the alfresco of their bodies, aloof like every added appreciative mollusk. The nautiloids connected that decorous addiction to the present day. Another externally-shelled group, the ammonoids, explored every camp bizarre acute of carapace coil and beautification afore accepting mass-extincted alongside the dinosaurs.

What charcoal are the coleoids—the alone accumulation of cephalopods in which change sheathed the shell, burying adamantine anatomy central a bendable body.

At first, this centralized carapace was still massive and still abounding of afloat chambers, as in the aboriginal coleoid Hematites. But over time accustomed alternative (carried out by athirst fish, for the best part) advantaged smaller, simpler shells.

Fossil Squid; credit: Diego Sala.

Now, cuttlefish and ram’s horn squid are the alone avant-garde coleoids to absorb the adamantine calcium and afloat accommodation of their ancestors. The centralized shells of octopuses accept acquired into bald vestiges.

And squid? Well, the carapace balance of a squid has no accommodation and no calcium. But it runs the abounding breadth of the body, from arch to fin-tip, and it offers abutment to the able anatomy that backpack these avant-garde monsters through the sea. Though unarmored, Architeuthis is best acceptable faster and far added active than Endoceras could anytime accept dreamed of being.

So which one would you rather accommodated in a aphotic alley?

RR Helm is a postdoc belief sea anemones and afraid at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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