of a colossal octopus at St. Augustine.
Known varieties of octopus range in size from
a circumference of a few inches to as large as 23 feet. There
is some evidence that, deep in the sea, there lives an unknown
species of octopus that can grow to over a hundred feet across
and weigh 10 tons.
The octopus is a distant cousin of the squid
and both belong to a group of animals called cephalopods. Both
are invertebrates, that is they have no backbone, and each have
multiple arms, lined with suckers, that allow the creatures
to hold fast to prey or other objects. Both are fairly intelligent,
with large dark eyes. Both are carnivorous.
Squid have ten appendages (two tentacles and ten
arms), though, while the octopus has only eight. Squid are also
thought to spend most of their time in the mid-waters while
the octopus is a bottom dweller using it's arms to move from
rock to rock. Finally, while the squid has a reputation for
aggression, the octopus has a more shy and retiring disposition.
Not that octopi are entirely harmless. When angered
they can be dangerous to both swimmers and divers. With their
strong, long arms they can hold a man underwater until he drowns.
The giant squid is a known creature and they have
been seen at sea. Several dead, or nearly dead, animals have
been found in the shallows or beached. In contrast only one
colossal octopus carcass has ever been found and it was, and
still is, surrounded in controversy.
The story starts in November of 1896 when two
boys cycling along the beach south of St. Augustine, Florida,
came across the body of an enormous creature that had been washed
up by the tide. Dr. DeWitt Webb, a local amateur naturalist
and President of the St. Augustine Historical Society, took
an interest in the remains. After an examination of the mutilated
and decaying body he believed that he'd discovered the carcass
of a huge octopus.
The portion of the creature that remained, the
body minus the arms, was eighteen feet in length and ten feet
wide. Parts of arms, unattached to the body, stretched as long
as 36 feet with a diameter of 10 inches. Dr. Webb estimated
weight at four or five tons.
Realizing this was an important find Webb wrote
to Yale Professor Addison Verrill, a leading expert on cephalopods,
about the creature:
"You may be interested to know of the body
of an immense Octopus thrown ashore some miles south of this
city. Nothing but the stump of the arm remains, as it had evidently
been dead for some time before washed ashore."
Based on photographs sent by Webb, Verrill concluded
that the creature was indeed a colossal octopus that might have
had a diameter of one-hundred and fifty feet when living. Strangely
enough, despite the importance of the find, Dr. Verrill, nor
any other scientist, traveled to St. Augustine to view the carcass
Webb finally sent Verrill a sample of the tissue
of the creature preserved in formalin. Verrill was surprised
to find it had the appearance of blubber and abruptly changed
his mind stating that he now believed the creature was a whale
and that the arms were not associated with the body.
The whole matter would have rested like that
if it hadn't been for Forrest Wood, the director of Marine Studios
(later Marineland) in Florida. Wood came across an old news
story about the monster and discovered that Webb's sample was
still stored at the Smithsonian Institution.
Wood persuaded the Smithsonian to let Dr. Joseph
Gennaro, of the University of Florida, to take some of the samples
for analysis. Gennaro immediately recognized that the material
was not blubber and examination under a microscope showed the
tissue was more similar to octopus than whale or squid. Further
tests later confirmed this conclusion.
So it seems that Webb was right and Verrill changed
his mind too quickly - maybe. The
scientific community has not yet accepted Gennaro's
conclusions, though a later an analysis by Roy P. Mackal, a
biologist with the University of Chicago, agreed that the material
was "not blubber," but consistent with a cephalopod
(octopus or squid).
In 1995, four scientists set out to take another
look at samples of the St. Augustine carcass. Their results,
published in the Biological Bulletin, disputes the other
findings. These researchers looked at the amino acids in the
remains and reached the conclusion they did not come from a
invertebrate. They concluded the material was most likely the
remains of a whale skin.
Other writers and scientists have disputed these
findings noticing that it would be extremely difficult to removed
the skin from a whale, intact, and get it to solidify into a
three-foot-thick sold mass as was observed on the beach at St.
How come more colossal octopi haven't been found?
Speculation is that as a bottom dweller the colossal octopus
bodies, upon death, stay on the bottom and decay leaving few
clues for scientists to find. Perhaps as we start to explore
the bottom of the sea further we may come face to face with
a colossal octopus and look into his huge unblinking eyes.
Copyright Lee Krystek 1996.
All Rights Reserved