Vampire squid take mommy breaks

Garbage dinners and stale water make life tough in the deep sea

Vampire squid of hell

DEFYING PERCEPTION  Sensationalism strikes Latin names too. Vampyroteuthis infernalis, “vampire squid of hell,” is neither a vampire nor a normal squid.

© 2004 MBARI

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Vampire squid live slow. Even their gonads, it turns out, take vacations.

Any information about their reproduction is prized, because no one has seen the deep-sea dwellers even swim close enough to each other to flirt. Studies of fished-up specimens offer clues. But they can’t solve puzzles such as how sperm gets into female storage pouches, one beside each of her large blue eyes.

What little is known about the biology of Vampyroteuthis infernalis suggests a low-speed life scrimping along on modest-at-best resources, says Henk-Jan Hoving with GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany. The species frequents oxygen-starved zones in temperate and tropical waters and has the most sluggish metabolism yet measured among cephalopods. Also, the so-called vampires don’t drink blood. Often they dumpster dive, gleaning and swallowing wads of sinking fecal pellets and other debris.

This leftovers lifestyle helped Hoving make sense of surprises he found in 43 preserved female vampire squid specimens. In each, he found mature ovaries with the expected divots left behind by egg release. Yet some of these obviously working ovaries held no new eggs approaching perfect plumpness for release. The rush to reproduce had paused. In squid, he says, “that’s something we had never seen before.”

Related species reproduce in one headlong rush before dying. Called semelparity, this single blowout of procreation shows up in organisms from salmon to garden squash vines. Among species of squid, octopus and cuttlefish, the vampire looks like the first clear exception, Hoving and his colleagues report in the April 20 Current Biology.

“I think they are just not able to mobilize enough energy to have one Big-Bang reproduction event,” Hoving says.

About male vampire squid, not much is known. But Hoving can say that they don’t produce the most famous of squid sperm masses: grenadelike ones that, when free of the male’s body, convulse so violently they drill sperm millimeters deep into heads, arms or any soft tissue in range. Vampire sperm clumps instead just break apart. Whether males need time-outs when producing the sperm parcels, no one knows.

SLOW LANE  Despite its name, the vampire squid lives a sluggish, unassuming life deep in murky ocean waters. It feeds on sinking detritus, not on blood. Credit: MBARI

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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