The real vampire squid

vampire squid

Vampyroteuthis is considered to be a “living fossil,” little changed from its relatives hundreds of millions of years ago. Vampire squid mostly hang out in low-oxygen zones more than 600 meters below the surface.

Kim Reisenbichler © 1996 MBARI

Vampire squid, deep-sea denizens complete with webbing that can flare like a cape, have enjoyed fame in the financial press. The politico-economic version of the squid was discovered when Matt Taibbi, writing for Rolling Stone in 2009, described the Goldman Sachs investment bank as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

“A dynamite sentence,” says deep-sea ecologist Bruce Robison of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. (And an inspirational one for business writers: JPMorgan Chase is the latest company to be compared to a blood-sucking cephalopod.) But as for the real squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, Robison says, “it’s not a vampire and it’s not a squid.”

In fact, “the animal itself is really kind of docile,” Robison says. Vampyroteuthis thrives in naturally occurring low-oxygen zones in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. And it doesn’t feed through a blood funnel, but uses a parrotlike beak to graze on little crustaceans and other small stuff in open water.

As for being a squid, in 2011 a family tree based on maternally inherited DNA placed Vampyroteuthis closer to octopuses. Robison thinks of the species as probably some kind of survivor of the ancient ancestors of today’s squids and octopuses.

Today’s true squid species have eight arms plus a pair of long feeding tentacles. Vampire squid likewise deploy eight arms, but also project a pair of long, thin filaments that don’t seem to be for feeding.

Vampyroteuthis can light up blue spots on its mantle and arm tips and can pull its cloak upward and inside-out, revealing pointy little projections. Robison calls this the pineapple posture  and has seen the vampire squid squirt a viscous liquid that surrounds the pineapple and blue lights in a swirling, luminous cloud. Maybe there’s a bank metaphor in there, too.

 A video of a live vampire squid shows the animal trapping small prey in its webbed arms.


Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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