Science Explorations

Ask a Scientist

Dr. Neil Landman

Dr. Neil Landman is a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
On March 21, 2006, students and teachers interviewed Dr. Neil Landman, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History. To learn about squid fossils, Dr. Landman's favorite animals, and how giant squid tastes, read the transcript below.

I thought paleontologists studied fossils. How did you get into studying giant squid?
Paleontologists do study fossils, but they're also interested in the animals and the plants that live on our Earth today. My specialty is fossil cephalopods and the most fascinating cephalopod alive today is the giant squid — so naturally, I became very interested in it.

Have you ever looked for a live giant squid?
I've visited New Zealand and looked at giant squid that were accidentally captured by fishing vessels, but I've never gone out on an expedition to find a giant squid. It's one of my dreams.

Would you ever move to New Zealand to be closer to where giant squid have been found?
I'm tempted because New Zealand is a beautiful country that I've visited many times and it's so exciting to be close to so many giant squid. My colleagues there often receive phone calls from fishermen who have accidentally captured giant squid and they rush out of the office to find out more about them. I would enjoy that kind of excitement.

When do you think you will fulfill your dream and go on your first ocean expedition to find the giant squid?
I hope to do it in the next few years. It requires lots of coordination with other scientists and arranging for a ship. To do oceanographic research is a very expensive enterprise and it usually requires funding from the U.S. government. So, we must convince our elected officials that this is an important thing to do. It's also critical to carefully consider where to go and what time of year is best to observe the giant squid.

What kinds of fossils can giant squid leave behind? How can you tell it's from a giant squid?
The squid sinks to the bottom after it dies and it's covered by the surrounding sediments. Over millions of years, the part of the squid known as the gladius becomes like a rock and the rest of the body disintegrates. Eventually, when that part of the sea becomes exposed to the land, the fossil can be found and studied. This is the situation with the ancient seas that once covered the United States where we find fossils today.

How did you feel when you first saw the recent photographs of the giant squid alive in the wild?
I was extremely excited because this had never been seen before. Scientists dream about what the giant squid looks like in its natural habitat, but this was the first time we had actual footage. Even so, it was a slightly artificial situation because the animal was caught on a hook, so it doesn't really capture what the giant squid looks like swimming naturally.

When the giant squid was caught on a hook, did it get hurt?
Unfortunately, yes. It tried for several hours to get free of the hook. Eventually that part of the tentacle broke off, and it freed itself. It didn't die. Ideally, it would be better to take photos of the giant squid without interfering with it.

How many giant squid do you estimate are alive in the ocean today?
We think there can easily be one million individuals. We suspect this because sperm whales feed on giant squid and, by some counts, there are as many as four million sperm whales. However, this is an estimate and we need to do more research to discover the real answer. We need to explore the deep sea at the depths where the giant squid lives. This part of the sea is not well known. We need to explore the upper thousand meters of the ocean to further document the presence of the giant squid. We know more about outer space than we do about the deep sea.

When you observed the giant squid specimen that was flash frozen and shipped to the museum, did it smell bad?
No, in contrast, it was in very good shape when it was defrosted and smelled of the sea. It didn't smell bad at all.

What's the most interesting fossil you have found?
The most interesting fossils I have found are ammonites. These are cephalopods, like the squid, but they have a beautiful shell. The best one I ever found was almost a meter in diameter with the shell still intact. The outside of the shell is iridescent, but more than its beauty, it gave me insight into the marine life that inhabited the ancient seaways. I found it in South Dakota.

Do you study any other ocean life besides squid? Do you want to?
Yes, everything in the sea interests me but I generally study cephalopods, which include more than just squid. This group includes octopus, cuttlefish, and the pearly nautilus. These are all part of the larger group known as mollusks that have always been my favorite animals.

Why are mollusks your favorite animals? What are mollusks anyway?
Mollusks are a group of animals that include more than 100,000 species alive today. These species include clams, snails, squid, octopus, mussels, and pearly nautilus, to name a few. Many of them form beautiful shells. These animals are important inhabitants of the sea and represent an important component of the ecology of the oceans. Because of their hard shells, they're easily fossilized and their fossil record is extremely good and gives us insights into the ancient oceans. Because there are so many fossils and because they're still alive today, they're my favorites.

How big is the biggest mollusk?
The biggest mollusk is the giant squid, which is about 60 feet long. For mollusks that have hard shells, the biggest is an ammonite with a seven-foot-long shell, but this ammonite is now extinct. Today, the largest mollusk with a hard shell is a giant clam that measures about three feet across.

How big can a squid get?
Most squid are small — about a foot or so — but they grow very rapidly. The giant squid are unusual because of their size, which can reach 60 feet. There may be even larger squid known as colossal squid but we know very little about these animals. We know they exist, but we have never seen a complete adult.

Who is your favorite scientist?
My favorite scientist is Stephen Jay Gould because not only did he know a lot about science, but he made connections between science and other disciplines. I think it's important when we do science to think about how it relates to other pursuits like history, philosophy, and literature.

What's a typical day like for you at the museum?
When I arrive in the morning, I begin by studying specimens that are on my workbench. I look at them under a microscope and I make observations. As I work, I try to think about how these observations help me understand the evolution and life history of these animals. Then I take a break for lunch. After lunch, I resume my work. I also discuss my results with colleagues at the museum and elsewhere and we share ideas. Eventually, I try to put down what I learn in a paper that will be published for other scientists to read and evaluate.

Do you think the ocean is the last unexplored frontier?
Yes, there are still so many things to learn about the ocean. Only 25 years ago, we didn't know about deep-sea vent communities. Now, we're discovering that they're very common in many parts of the ocean. These communities and the giant squid remind us how much we need to learn about the oceans. There are still so many discoveries to be made — and all of you can help make them.

What kind of schooling did you need to become a paleontologist?
Because paleontology has many aspects to it, you need to study biology, geology, ecology, and oceanography, and you need to be curious about the evolution of life on our planet. Paleontology has a fun side because it includes fieldwork. Paleontologists get to travel to exotic places to study ancient creatures, places like China, Morocco, and Antarctica.

What are your hobbies?
Because I like the ocean so much, I enjoy swimming and boating and I enjoy walking along the water beachcombing. I also like to travel and try different kinds of food. In fact, in some other areas of the world, like Japan, they prepare and serve squid in many different ways, which are very tasty!

Do you have a pet?
No, I don't. I would like to have a dog, but I travel so much it's hard for me to keep a pet.

Were you a good student?
Yes, I was a very good student. I studied hard and did my homework. But I also enjoyed visiting museums and going on field trips to look for fossils when I was a kid.

What kinds of books do you like to read?
I like both nonfiction and fiction. For fiction books, I enjoy mysteries that have some historical interest. For nonfiction, I enjoy books about New York City, where I live, and about places I travel to.

What is the ocean like as an environment to live in?
It's very wet. Many of the aspects of living in a watery environment are different than living in air. For example, if you wave your hand, somebody 20 feet from you may not sense any change in the movement of the air, but in the sea, a fish that swims 20 feet from you will make a vibration in the water that you will easily sense. Sound also travels differently in the sea than it does on land. Breathing is another adaptation that works differently in the sea and in air.

Have you worked at any other museums beside the American Museum of Natural History?
Yes, I worked at the Yale Peabody Museum at Yale University after I graduated with a PhD. It was a smaller museum than the American Museum of Natural History, but also very interesting.

What do you think we can learn by studying the giant squid?
We can learn more about the diversity of life on our planet, the secrets of the deep sea, and how animals live in such cold, dark environments. And we can learn about how life evolved by comparing the giant squid to fossils of related squid that we find elsewhere.

What's the most exciting part of being a scientist for you?
It's the discovery of new information and putting the information together to view things in different ways. For example, you may be studying a cephalopod and for the first time you notice something different about the shape of the tentacle. You'd say "I think I noticed that before, but I didn't realize how important it is," and then you'd compare it to different specimens and you may realize you've discovered a clue to the life history or evolution of these animals. That's a very exciting time.

My 2nd graders want to know what ocean animals are indigenous to Japan?
There are many species of mollusks from tiny animals to larger animals that inhabit the waters off Japan. Only by comparing the species to others in nearby areas like Indonesia can we confirm that these animals are unique to Japan. So, it's not an easy answer. However, in terms of mollusks, it is possible that the giant squid in Japan is a unique species, but this requires further study.

If you weren't a scientist what do you think you would be doing?
If I weren't a scientist, I think I would be an art historian. The reason is, I think science and art history have a lot in common. I only realized this a few years ago. What I love about science is that it's a very visual exercise. You look at animals and you look at the sea, and you take in all of this beauty and this fascinating information. With art, you also get to admire it and it's very visual. I discovered I like the visual nature of what I do.

Do giant squid have teeth?
Giant squid, like other cephalopods, have a tongue with sharp protuberances on it called a radula. This helps grind down food and ram it down the gullet. They are not the same as teeth in humans or sharks, but they serve a similar function.

Have you ever gone around the ocean in a submarine as part of your work?
I've traveled on the oceans a lot, but mostly on ships on the surface. I have not had the opportunity to go on a submarine.

Who's your favorite artist?
My favorite artist is Renoir because he's an impressionist artist who uses a lot of color in his paintings, and he transforms a plain scene into an exciting, vivid image.

Can you eat a giant squid?
People have tried to eat giant squid and it turns out they are not very tasty to humans. They have ammonium chloride in them, which is lighter than seawater and helps maintain their buoyancy, but as a result, they taste pretty awful.

What did you want to be when you were little?
I found my first fossil when I was 7 years old and I realized that paleontology and oceanography were the two subjects that I loved, so I'm happy that I was able to put them together in studying the paleontology of marine creatures as well as those that are alive today. I also liked art and was very good at drawing.

What advice do you have for kids out there who want to be scientists when they grow up?
Go to school, study, but also go outside. Shut off the computer and go outside. Go to the beach, look at the water, go into the forest, climb the mountain, look in a telescope — go outside! Feel the excitement and connection with nature.

Any final thoughts?
Keep your eyes open for a giant squid! Some have washed up on the beaches of Maine and Newfoundland, so keep your eyes open!

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