Worldwide in tropical to temperate latitudes
Open ocean (mesopelagic)
Class Cephalopoda (squids, octopuses, and relatives), Family Vampyroteuthidae (vampire squids)
Though it resembles both, the vampire squid is neither a squid nor an octopus. It is a unique animal that has been separated by scientists into its own group. Like many of its relatives, the vampire squid has eight arms and two tentacles. It does not suck or drink blood, and instead gets its common name from its dark color and the skin that connects the arms, resembling a cape. This species lives in the nearly completely dark waters of the mesopelagic zone.
When disturbed, the vampire squid inverts its cape, displaying large spines that line the underside of its arms. When exhibiting this posture, this species looks rather intimidating, but it is actually quite harmless. It is not predatory. Instead, it depends on food particles that it captures using sticky cells on its long, filamentous tentacles. In this way, it opportunistically feeds on plant and animal matter that sinks from the surface ocean. Some large fishes and diving predators are known to eat vampire squids. Unlike shallow-water squids and octopuses, vampire squids do not expel black ink to escape predation. In the darkness of the mesopelagic zone, black or dark purple ink would not be effective. Instead the vampire squid expels a colorless substance that contains numerous particles of bioluminescent (light-producing) material. These twinkling lights confuse potential predators.
In addition to the light produced during their defense response, vampire squids produce light at the tips of each of their arms. This light may be used as a form of communication. As this species is naturally rare, encounters between males and females likely do not happen very often. For that reason, it is important that they reproduce when given the chance, and females are known to store the sperm from males for long periods before using it to fertilize their eggs.
Like most deep-sea organisms, it is very difficult to study vampire squids in their natural environment, so little is known about the behavior of these animals. With continued exploration of the deep ocean, scientists will hopefully find out more about this unique and interesting species.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.