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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


  1. Girlie Thoh
    Penang, Malaysia
    November 21, 2012, 9:25 pm

    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!

  2. Girlie Thoh
    Penang, Malaysia
    November 21, 2012, 9:20 pm

    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 🙂

  3. Chris Mah
    August 20, 2012, 11:14 pm

    @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

  4. Chris Mah
    August 20, 2012, 11:03 pm

    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

  5. nimesh saxena
    August 20, 2012, 1:08 am

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

  6. edwin sison
    August 19, 2012, 10:12 pm

    its bigger than the red devils squid

  7. Muireann
    August 19, 2012, 2:25 pm

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

  8. tristan
    South Africa
    August 19, 2012, 2:22 pm

    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.

  9. Teresa Alsabrook
    August 19, 2012, 2:00 pm

    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!

  10. Keith Andersen
    United States
    August 19, 2012, 1:11 pm

    “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!

  11. senior 386
    August 19, 2012, 12:57 pm

    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.

  12. james
    August 19, 2012, 12:54 pm

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

  13. Zia
    Dublin, Ire
    August 19, 2012, 12:42 pm

    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.

  14. ahmad zmaili
    jordan, amman
    August 19, 2012, 12:33 pm


  15. Brenda Matlock
    August 14, 2012, 3:34 am

    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
      August 14, 2012, 10:15 am

      That’s so nice, thank you Brenda! 🙂

  16. Caitlyn
    Burbank, Ca
    August 13, 2012, 6:21 pm

    Mr Mah –

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

    – Caitlyn J

  17. Chris Mah
    August 13, 2012, 4:56 pm

    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.

  18. jam
    August 13, 2012, 3:06 am

    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:)]

  19. Francine Tomlinson
    August 11, 2012, 12:41 pm

    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.

  20. Andrew
    August 10, 2012, 4:35 pm

    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
      August 13, 2012, 10:51 am

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

  21. Suhaila
    August 9, 2012, 1:22 pm

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

  22. Francis
    August 9, 2012, 5:31 am

    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 🙂

  23. Chris Mah
    Washington DC
    August 9, 2012, 12:27 am

    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.

  24. Seth lim
    August 8, 2012, 1:00 pm

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

    • Christine Dell'Amore
      August 8, 2012, 3:40 pm

      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!