Giant Squid Eyeball Among Museum Oddities

One of the perks of living in D.C. is its many museums and their delightful oddities—some of which I got to see on a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology last week.

In a lobby made of fossil-rich Paleozoic limestone, Chris Mah, a research collaborator at the museum, set me and my colleagues straight on the invertebrates the museum collects and studies—basically, spineless animals that aren’t insects (think a coral or starfish).


Chris Mah with Errinopsis corals. All photos by Christine Dell'Amore.


Mah himself is one of only a few starfish experts in the world: “There are more people familiar with obscure Godzilla monsters than there are people who study starfish,” he quipped. Mah’s apparently not the only invertebrate zoologist with a sense of humor—amid a display of bubblegum coral and brittlestars near the elevators was a jar with a “preserved” hot dog—appropriately lacking a backbone, and labeled as “Hotdogia, 1986.”

Mah walked us past row after row of high filing cabinets containing all manner of scientific treasures, some of them from as far back as 1900. Smithsonian scientists still use these specimens for research and species-identification requests, many of them from the general public.

In this sense these “valuable artifacts” are not just specimens “we sequester away—we use them to better science,” Mah said. The Smithsonian Institution as a whole recently hit its millionth catalogued specimen, most of which are kept at a storage facility in Maryland.

Smithsonian scientists also work with other institutions to conduct research on evolution and conservation biology, Mah noted. For instance, the museum participates in expeditions that use deep-sea submersibles equipped to collect and record ocean creatures.

“Seeing the deep-sea bottom on a hi-def video like that, followed by immediate sampling? It’s like the QVC of biology,” Mah said.

(Get more invertebrate news on Mah’s Echinoblog.)


A sea spider is not a true spider.
The crown-of-thorns starfish has up to 20 arms.


We stopped outside Mah’s office, where he promptly opened a jar containing a preserved giant isopod, releasing noxious ethanol fumes. We all exclaimed at the monstrous creature, which is essentially a huge version of your garden variety pillbug.

Watch Mah talk about giant isopods.

Other curios included a deep-sea slime star—or a “living pillow of mucus,” as Mah described it—a crown-of-thorns starfish, and a shingle sea urchin, which was covered with armadillo-like plates that help the animal survive in rough ocean waters.

He also showed us a sea spider—an arthropod but not actually a spider—which I’d seen alive and squirming in a touch tank during my 2011 fellowship to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

(Related blog post: “Expedition Antarctica: Creepy Crawlers and Explorers.”)

But the pièce de résistance awaited. Mah took us down the hall—past portraits of Victorian men with handlebar mustaches, old wooden card catalogs, and the odd microscope—into a room with a giant squid eyeball.

A giant squid eye—the biggest eye in the animal kingdom.

(Learn about the eyes of another species of huge squid, the colossal squid, on Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue.)

The largest invertebrate, giant squid—along with their kin the colossal squid—also have the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, which measure some 10 inches (25 centimeters) wide. The massive organs allow them to detect objects—like a hungry sperm whale—in the ocean depths. Peering close into the jar, the eyeball didn’t look all that different than ours, white with a round black pupil at the center.

(Related: “Giant Squid’s Basketball-Size Eyes Have Sperm Whale Vision.”)

Mah sent us off with an invitation to visit again and a renewed appreciation for the spineless among us.

Readers, where should my next quest for the weird and underappreciated take me?

Get more weird news at National Geographic News

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.
  • Seth lim

    How did Chris mah get a squid’s eye? What does it mean about noxious ethanol fumes?

    • Christine Dell’Amore

      Hey Seth,
      The museum has a giant squid eye in its collections—you can email him if you want the exact story! Here’s his webpage:http://invertebrates.si.edu/mah.htm. The fumes were from the ethanol used to preserve the giant isopod—it smells pretty bad!

  • Chris Mah

    The giant squid eye is one of many specimens that are part of the invertebrate zoology department’s cephalopod collection. This includes not just the eye but complete specimens of giant squid which you can see in the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Hall.

    Ethanol, which is the same substance that is in beer and other alcoholic beverages, is often used as a preservative. The fragrance may smell a little sour to the those who are unaccustomed to it but it is often used in biology and when properly prepared is a perfectly safe and even pleasant.

  • Francis

    do you have a show on tv that showcases this kind of squids? like a footage of a an actual GIANT squid?..let me know 🙂

  • Suhaila

    I have to say Mr Mah, your job and discipline are AWESOME! Biology rocks 🙂

  • Andrew

    This is very poorly written. Shouldn’t the second paragraph read “…set my colleagues and me…..” rather than “…myself and my colleagues….”?

    I don’t usually pick on things like this but presumably Miss Dell’Amore is a professional journalist! Yet she’s obviously one of the many today who don’t fully understand English grammar. The standards of the NGS really seem to have slipped in recent years.

    • Christine Dell’Amore

      Thanks for the eagle eye Mr. Booth. I appreciate your comment, though not its unkind delivery.

  • Francine Tomlinson

    I have great arachnophobia, and when I scrolled down the page and reached the horrifying photo of the sea-spider, I got good bumps and immediately moved my hand away from the computer.
    Then, when relaxed, read the description, and it said that it’s not a real spider. I took a closer look at the spider look-a-like, and wondered to myself. If it’s not a REAL spider, then what species is it or whatever?
    From Me.

  • jam

    if Mah was able to preserve the squid’s eye, did he also preserved it’s body?
    [if he did, that would be totally awesome:)]

  • Chris Mah

    To Jam-My understanding was that the eye was recovered from an individual that was too badly damaged to be saved. But there are other specimens with further eyes at museums throughout the world.

    to Francine-“sea spiders” belong to the class Pycnogonida http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pycnogonida

    they resemble spiders but there is some discussion over whether they actually are. Some sea spiders can be quite beautiful

    and are quite harmless. More so-out of water.

  • Caitlyn

    Mr Mah –

    What is the strangest thing you’ve seen so far?

    – Caitlyn J

  • Brenda Matlock

    Christine. I’m just a lil ole country person. I think some people get too educated for their own good sometimes. I enjoyed the article but much more enjoyed how you tactfully handled the rude academic. The journey is what is fun not who is RIGHT every time. Good on ya! God Bless!

    • Christine Dell’Amore

      That’s so nice, thank you Brenda! 🙂

  • ahmad zmaili


  • Zia

    Hola Christine,

    I was wondering, touching those specimens that are preserved with special substances is not harmful for the process of conservation?
    Hands have lots of germs, grease and microbies. If anybody touch them in each photo shoot or interview, what can happen? or It is ok they can figure how to get another of the same easily with all the work and money that involves?

    Just really curious about this. I also work with some organic materials (I am an artist) and would like to now if there a way to preserve well feathers to avoid decomposition specially by humidity, thank you very much.
    Zia A.

  • james

    will there be like a next part of the program”the edge of the universe”?

  • senior 386

    To Andrew UK, You have nothing better to do than pick on a very devoted Christine Dell’Amore? Get a life Andrew. These remarks were reserved for comments about specimens not proper english grammar.

  • Keith Andersen

    “Readers, where should my next quest for the weird and underappreciated take me?”

    You might try the AFIP up at the new Walter Reed Annex-could be very weird and underappreciated!

  • Teresa Alsabrook

    Christine the way you handled Mr. Booth was very kind and to the point. I’m proud of you. PS. The squids eye is amazing!

  • tristan

    Brenda you suck there is no god and you can never ever be to educated go get stuffed thank you,and Christine thank you for ll of this its awesome good on you i know know something new yay.

  • Muireann

    Andrew, I believe it should be actually be “my colleagues and I”. Shame the level of readers has slipped so.

  • edwin sison

    its bigger than the red devils squid

  • nimesh saxena

    hey guys…. i m really interested in nat geo ….. how do u actually apply in it for a job ???

  • Chris Mah

    I guess what is “strange” for many people is beautiful and amazing for me. I’ve seen a whole field of bioluminescent animals at 400 m while rising through them in a submersible which was stunning. There’s a deep sea landscape off the coat of Hawaii where weird deep-sea sponges cover the bottom. Imagine seeing not just one but hundreds of these in a dark seemingly infinite seascape http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/HURL/animals/id/sponges/hexactinellida/pages/HURLSponges1_162.htm

    but sometimes the strangest things are more familiar. A terrestrial biologist once showed me how an introduced flatworm common in many North American gardens kill and attack earthworms. It was quite a surprising action to watch.

    And of course, the animals I study-the Echinoderms are the strangest and weirdest of them all! Many examples but here’s one that I’m fond of…. mucous stars! http://echinoblog.blogspot.be/2010/09/pteraster-kin-when-starfish-throw-mucus.html

  • Chris Mah

    @Zia … the wet preserved specimens are stored in ethanol which is an antiseptic and so museum specimens are protected against microbes, etc.

    I know that conservators often handle artifacts, such as feathers, with gloves but I’m not sure there’s much I can say about it but a quick google search for “museum conservation” and “feathers” yields many suggestions. Good luck1

  • Girlie Thoh

    Hi Chris,
    It’s truly amazing what we can find in the depths of our oceans … apart from identifying and classifying the species do you so any research on medical applications and such?
    Hi Christine … loved the way you handled the condescending guy 🙂

  • Girlie Thoh

    Hi Chris … amazing creatures! Do you study them for species classification only or do you also study them for medical applications and such?
    Hi Christine …. loved the way you handled the condescending guy!

  • arnav

    Is it the giant squid?

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