A mysterious, 41-foot-long and 19-foot-wide (12.4-meters by 5.4-meters)gelatinous mass of flesh washed ashore in southern Chile serves as reminder that the sea may be full of creatures yet discovered by humankind.
"It had a very particular smell, very different from a dead cetacean and from anything we have smelled before," said Elsa Cabrera, director of the Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago, Chile.
After showing images of the fleshy blob to an Italian zoologist and comparing them to reports from a stranding off the coast of Florida in 1896, Cabrera said that the decomposing fleshy blob is most likely a giant octopus (Octopus giganteus).
The Center for Cetacean Conservation in Santiago is sending skin samples to Chilean and international organizations to try and identify the species, which was originally discovered by the Chilean Navy floating alongside a dead humpback whale.
"If the analysis confirms the finding of a giant octopus, this will be a major scientific finding for the Chilean and international scientific community, and it will be one step forward to increase our knowledge about the incredible creatures that are still unknown to humans," said Cabrera.
Steve Webster, a marine biologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, was one of the scientists contacted by the organization and shown a photograph of the specimen.
"Based on what I see in the picture, I would opt for whale skin since that is a part of world where whales are not uncommon," he said.
Webster also said that reports describing the specimen as both leathery and gelatinous were conflicting. If it is indeed leathery, he said, it is most likely a whale skin. But if it is more gelatinous, then it could be something else. One possibility is a giant salp, a deep-sea fish known as a pyrosome.
The possibility that it might be a giant squid does not make much sense to Webster.
"If it is skin of squid rather than a big intact sheet like that, you would expect to see some indication that it once had arms or tentacles—and I dont see anything that speaks to that," he said. "And for just a body of a squid to be that big, then you are talking about a squid that is larger than any known to man. That seems less likely to me than whale skin."
Cabrera said that she does not believe the blob is a whale because the texture, smell, and coloring are different from known decomposing whales.
"We also consulted experts from the National Museum of Natural History that confirmed to us that when a whale decomposes at sea, the smell and texture of its blubber and skin are still recognizable," she said.
William Gilly, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has studied the behavior and biology of squid for more than two decades, said that the creature as described in news reports was a mystery to him, but that it could be a giant squid.
"Over the last few years they've found several big sorts of new species of squid that were surprises or extra-colossal-size specimens of species previously known," he said.
There is much to be learned about giant squid, said Gilly. For example, little is known about their habits. Scientists with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC suspect that giant squid mostly live at depths of 660 to 2,300 feet (200 to 700 meters).
Even the life history of species such as the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas), which Gilly says are caught all the time as bycatch by commercial fishing fleets but also are a targeted fishery in Mexico, Peru, and central America is poorly known.
National Geographic Ultimate Explorer correspondent Mireya Mayor joined Gilly and cameraman Bob Cranston in pursuit of the elusive giant Humboldt squid in the Gulf of California. Their investigation is the subject of a documetary Devils of the Deep, which premieres on July 27 on MSNBC.
Humboldt squid are described as aggressive predators that can reach six feet (two meters) long and are equipped with powerful arms and tentacles, excellent underwater vision, and a razor-sharp beak that tears through the flesh of their prey.
The squid can also rapidly change their skin color in what appears to be a complex communication system that, like much of these elusive creatures' natural history, remains a mystery to scientists.
"There are many mysteries in the sea, especially when you get away from the surface [or] the shore," said Gilly.