Just how big are the biggest creatures in the ocean? Researchers from around the US and Canada have been trying to figure that out, and they have emerged with some illuminating results.
In a paper published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ, the researchers analysed data on the body sizes of some of the largest animals in the sea. This handy chart, made to accompany the research, helps put it all into perspective. (If you have trouble reading the graphic, click here to see the full-sized version at PeerJ.)
In each row, the human is scaled for comparison with the sea creatures described. The ocean’s most impressive giants are shown in the top row — next to the 108-foot blue whale, the diver is like an insect:
The project started as a way to correct some misconceptions about the size of certain sea creatures. “Several years ago I noticed that people kept staying that giant squids reached 60 feet in length, which is amazingly long,” said Craig McClain, assistant director of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., and the paper’s lead author, in a statement. “When I started actually looking at the data, I found that that estimate was actually quite unrealistic.”
McClain and his team settled on a list of animals whose sizes are commonly misreported. Once the researchers got to work, they used all available sources of data for their analyses.
“This included finding data through literature searches via Google Scholar and Web of Science, fisheries data and governmental reports, stranding data, museum records and specimens, online auctions and sales, and personal communications with scientists conducting research on the organisms examined here,” the authors wrote.
As it turns out, the largest known giant squid was about 40 feet long — not 60. Other species the researchers investigated included the lion’s mane jellyfish (120 feet), whale shark (61.68 feet), the oarfish (26.25 feet), the Japanese spider crab (12.14 feet), and the giant clam (4.5 feet).
Many of these creatures are rare, or at least rarely observed — which may be one reason their sizes are so often misreported.
But they do surface occasionally. In October 2013, for instance, several elusive oarfish washed up on the California coast, making headlines. Although not quite 26 feet long, they still packed a substantial punch with one measuring in at 18 feet and the other a respectable 14 feet.
And last year, scientists dissected the only intact colossal squid specimen — a different, slightly smaller species than the giant squid — ever to be hauled from the ocean. That specimen, pulled from the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica, measured in at about 11.5 feet, although the researchers in the size study found that the largest ever observed was nearly 14 feet long.
Here’s how those giant sea animals and their relatives actually stack up against humans:
Having more information about an animal’s body size can help scientists make better inferences about its biology, the authors of the size study write.
For example, they explain, scientists believe the giant squid’s body size may be decreasing due to the warming climate and overfishing by humans. Knowing its largest historical size is important for future comparisons.
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