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The sea vampire, aka Vampyroteuthis infernalis that means ‘vampire squid from Hell,’ sounds like a make-believe creature out of a horror story. However, it is a very real creature that lives in the ocean.
Thankfully, the sea vampire lives in the depths of the waters at a range of 300 (90 meters) to 3,000 feet (900 meters), so you won’t be swimming into one of these any time soon.
An evolutionary champion, the sea vampire is the only surviving species of the Vampyromorphida order. It is an ancient species, which adds to its mystic connection to the two-legged vampire thought to terrorize humans.
In size, the vampyroteuthis infernalis is not large at all; the average body size is six inches in length and its arms measure approximately 6 inches long, bringing the full length of the animal to 1 foot.
Vampire squids are cephalopods, which are a class of mollusks. They feature bilateral symmetry, and consist of a head and arm-like tentacles. However, vampire squids are not technically squids at all.
In 1903 when the first vampire squids were ever documented, Carl Chun, a teuthologist or biologist who studies cephalopods, recorded the creature as an octopus because of its eight tentacle-like arms and shape. However, the vampire squid is actually a sort of crossbreed between the squid and the octopus, sharing distinctive traits from each of these categories of cephalopods.
According to the more technical terms of taxidermy, in the order of Cephalopod, the cohort of the vampire squid, squid, and octopus is Neocoleoidea. The superorder of Neocoleoidea that includes squids is the Decapodiformes, while the vampire squid and octopus are classified under the superorder Octopodiformes aka Vampyropoda.
A further breakdown separates the two Octopodiformes by order: order Vampyromorphida that includes the vampire squid, while the order Octopoda includes the octopus. So in classification, the vampire squid is more closely related to the octopus than the squid, as determined by Chun, even though the relation seems odd given the name of ‘vampire squid.’
Just like the fictional character by the same name, the vampire squid lives in the darkness where no sunlight can get to them. The average temperatures of the vampire squid’s environment range from 2 to 6 degrees Celsius, or 35 to 43 degrees Fahrenheit. A vampire squid moves through the water like all cephalopods, by using propulsion. While the vampire squid can use jet propulsion, which means to shoot water through a siphon underneath its mantle, this type of sea creature also uses its ears for propulsion. Located on the top of the vampire squid’s head are two large ear-like fins that can be flapped to help propel the animal through the water. Another feature of the vampire squid is that its body is jellylike, similar to a jellyfish.
To get the name ‘vampire squid,’ this animal had to have some sort of distinguishing characteristics similar to a vampire, and it does. One particular distinction of the vampire squid is its eyes, which glow with a blue or reddish hue in different types of artificial light. The globe-shaped eyes of this creature are in proportion the largest eyes of any living creature; they are the size of a large dog’s eyes, keeping in mind the vampire squid’s body is only six inches in length. The eight arms of the vampire squid are connected by a web-type of skin, which gives the creature a creepy-crawler appearance. In times of stress, the vampire squid wraps its web around itself to shield its body, very similar to how Count Dracula might use his cape to conceal himself from unwanted eyes. The vampire squid also has spiny fixtures attached to its arms, which are known as cirri, that appear to look like fangs of a vampire. As a final characteristic reminiscent of a vampire, the coloring of the animal ranges from pale red to midnight black.
To protect itself, the vampire squid can produce a light show using photophores, which are light producing organs. Using its mind, the sea vampire can make the photophores turn on individually and at a wide range of intensities. As the animal lives in the ever-dark deep seas, the lights allow the vampire squid to disorient its predators, as well as attract prey, similar to the more commonly known deep-diving anglerfish made popular by Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Unlike squids, the vampire squid does not have an ink sack to use for its defense. But, it does have the ability to shoot glowing mucus out of the tip end of its eight tentacles.
As for the diet of the vampire squid, this animal does not live by sucking blood from its prey as one might think. While most of the dietary habits of the vampire squid are a mystery, it is thought that the animal eats small invertebrates, such as copepods and prawns, which are consistent with the marine life found at the depths where these night-loving sea creatures dwell. In terms of predators, parts of vampire squid have been discovered in the stomachs of whales and seals, as well as deep-diving fish.
Vampire squid reproduce by laying eggs, which are very small at only eight millimeters in diameter. Other than that, scientists have yet to discover much more about their mating habits, breeding season, or parental instincts. One thing that is known is young vampire squid grow ears that will shrink away as the creature grows, only to regrow at another more optimal position on the head in order to increase their efficiency with propulsion. This process continues as the vampire squid reaches adulthood, when the ears grow in to their permanent position.