Meet the Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)

This deep sea creature lives in total darkness

The vampire squid is a red cephalopod with characteristics of both a squid and an octopus.
The vampire squid is a red cephalopod with characteristics of both a squid and an octopus. NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Océano Profundo 2015: Exploring Puerto Rico’s Seamounts, Trenches, and Troughs

Vampyroteuthis infernalis literally means "vampire squid from Hell." However, the vampire squid is neither a vampire nor truly a squid. The cephalopod gets its flashy name from its blood red to black coloration, cloak-like webbing, and toothy-looking spines.

The animal has been classified and reclassified over the years, first as an octopus in 1903, and later as a squid. At present, its retractile sensory filaments have earned it a spot in its own order, Vampyromorphida. 

Description

Many species of squid, like this bigfin reef squid, have photophores that provide light.
Many species of squid, like this bigfin reef squid, have photophores that provide light. torstenvelden / Getty Images

The vampire squid is sometimes called a living fossil because it is relatively unchanged compared with its fossilized ancestors that lived 300 million years ago. Its ancestry combines features of squids and octopuses. V. infernalis has reddish-brown skin, blue eyes (that appear red in certain light), and webbing between its tentacles.

Unlike true squid, the vampire squid can't change the color of its chromatophores. The squid is covered in light-producing organs called photophores, which can produce flashes of blue light lasting a fraction of a second to several minutes. Proportionally, the squid's eyes have the largest eye-to-body ratio in the animal kingdom.

In addition to eight arms, the vampire squid has two retractable sensory filaments that are unique to its species. There are suckers near the ends of the arms, with soft spines called cirri lining the underside of the "cloak." Like the dumbo octopus, the mature vampire squid has two fins on the upper (dorsal) side of its mantle.

V. infernalis is a relatively small "squid," reaching a maximum length of about 30 centimeters (1 foot). As in true squids, vampire squid females are larger than males.

Habitat

The vampire squid lives in such deep water that the only light comes from bioluminescent organisms, like jellyfish, fish, and other squid.
The vampire squid lives in such deep water that the only light comes from bioluminescent organisms, like jellyfish, fish, and other squid. Rmiramontes / Getty Images

The vampire squid lives in the aphotic (lightless) zone of the tropical to temperate oceans worldwide at depths of 600 to 900 meters (2000 to 3000 feet) and deeper. This is the oxygen minimum zone, where oxygen saturation as low as 3 percent was once thought incapable of supporting complex life. The squid's habitat is not only dark, but also cold and highly pressurized.

Adaptations

V. infernalis is perfectly adapted to life in an extreme environment. Its extremely low metabolic rate helps it conserve energy, so it needs less food or oxygen than cephalopods living closer to the sea surface. The hemocyanin that gives its "blood" a blue color is more efficient at binding and releasing oxygen than in other cephalopods. The squid's gelatinous, ammonium-rich body is similar in composition to that of a jellyfish, giving it a density close to that of seawater. Additionally, the vampire squid has balancing organs called statocysts that help it maintain equilibrium.

Like other deep sea cephalopods, the vampire squid lacks ink sacs. If agitated, it can release a cloud of bioluminescent mucous, which may confuse predators. However, the squid doesn't use this defense mechanism readily because of the metabolic cost of regenerating it.

Instead, the vampire squid pulls its cloak up over its head, with the bioluminescent ends of its arms placed well above its head. Videos of this maneuver give the appearance the squid is turning itself inside-out. The "pineapple" shape may confuse attackers. While the exposed cirri look scarily like rows of hooks or fangs, they are soft and harmless.

Behavior

Observations of vampire squid behavior in its natural habitat are rare and can only be recorded when a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) encounters one. However, in 2014 the Monterey Bay Aquarium managed to put a vampire squid on display in order to study its captive behavior.

Under ordinary conditions, the neutrally buoyant squid floats, gently propelling itself by flexing its tentacles and cloak. If its retractile filaments touch another object, it can flap its fins to move in closer to investigate or swim away. If it needs to, the vampire squid can jet away by strongly contracting its tentacles. However, it can't sprint for very long because the effort expends too much energy.

Diet

This is the oral or underside of a vampire squid. When threatened, the squid can curl its arms and mantle over its head, dramatically changing its appearance.
This is the oral or underside of a vampire squid. When threatened, the squid can curl its arms and mantle over its head, dramatically changing its appearance. from Thiele in Chun, C. 1910. Die Cephalopoden

These "vampires" do not suck blood. Instead, they live on something possibly even more unpalatable: marine snow. Marine snow is the name given to the detritus that rains down on the ocean depths. The squid also eat small crustaceans, such as copepods, ostracods, and amphipods. The animal envelops nutrient-rich water with its cloak, while the cirri sweep the food toward the squid's mouth.

Reproduction and Life Span

The vampire squid's reproductive strategy differs from that of other living cephalopods. Adult females spawn multiple times, returning to a gonad resting state between events. The strategy requires a minimum energy expenditure. While spawning details are unknown, it's likely the resting period is determined by food availability. Females likely store spermatophores from males until they are needed.

A vampire squid progresses through three distinct forms. Newly hatched animals are transparent, have a single pair of fins, smaller eyes, no webbing, and immature velar filaments. Hatchlings subsist on internal yolk. The intermediate form has two pairs of fins and feeds on marine snow. The mature squid once again has a single pair of fins. The average lifespan of the vampire squid is unknown.

Conservation Status

The grenadier is a type of fish that eats vampire squid.
The grenadier is a type of fish that eats vampire squid. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG / Getty Images

V. infernalis has not been assessed for a conservation status. The squid may be threatened by ocean warming, overfishing, and pollution. The vampire squid is preyed upon by deep-diving mammals and larger deepwater fish. It commonly falls prey to the giant grenadier, Albatrossia pectoralis.

Vampire Squid Fast Facts

Common Name: Vampire Squid

Scientific Name: Vampyroteuthis infernalis

Phylum: Mollusca (Mollusks)

Class: Cephalopoda (Squids and Octopuses)

Order: Vampyromorphida

Family: Vampyroteuthidae

Distinguishing Characteristics: The red to black squid has large blue eyes, webbing between its tentacles, a pair of fins that resemble ears, and a pair of retractable filaments. The animal can glow bright blue.

Size: Maximum total length of 30 cm (1 ft)

Lifespan: Unknown

Habitat: The aphotic zone of tropical and subtropical oceans all over the world, usually at depths around 2000 to 3000 feet.

Conservation Status: Not Yet Classified

Fun Fact: The vampire squid lives in darkness, but in a sense it carries its own "flashlight" to help it see. It can turn its light-producing photophores on or off at will.

Sources

  • Hoving, H. J. T.; Robison, B. H. (2012). "Vampire squid: Detritivores in the oxygen minimum zone" (PDF). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 279 (1747): 4559–4567.
  • Stephens, P. R.; Young, J. Z. (2009). "The statocyst of Vampyroteuthis infernalis (Mollusca: Cephalopoda)". Journal of Zoology180 (4): 565–588. 
  • Sweeney, M.J. and C.F. Roper. 1998. Classification, type localities, and type respositories of recent cephalopoda. In Systematics and Biogeography of Cephalopods. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, number 586, vol 2. Eds: Voss N.A., Vecchione M., Toll R.B. and Sweeney M.J. pp 561-595.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Meet the Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)." ThoughtCo, May. 9, 2018, thoughtco.com/vampire-squid-4164694. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, May 9). Meet the Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/vampire-squid-4164694 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Meet the Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/vampire-squid-4164694 (accessed May 24, 2018).