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An Artist’s Conception of the Extinct Vampyropod

Back during the dark depths of the great recession, this blog featured a post concerning the vampire squid. This poor creature (which has become famous as a sort of symbol of the anticompetitive and monopolistic practices of bulge-bracket banks) is neither a vampire nor a squid, but rather a “vampiromorphid” an enigmatic order of cephalopods which is currently represented by only a single living species (although there are many extinct species and maybe there are still new vampiromorphs to be found down in the depths somewhere). Anyway, the vampiromorphids sort of fell off of my radar for a little while until a few weeks ago, when a forgotten piece of 328 million year old limestone from Montana helped paleontologists determine that the vampiromorphids are more closely related to octopuses than to other cephalopods.

The piece of stone was collected in Montana and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum back in 1988. Nobody realized the significance of the ancient rock (above, which reveals little to a layperson) until scientists from the American Museum of Natural History examined it and determined that it was a whole new genus of cephalopod (in fact it probably exemplifies new orders and families as well–but taxonomists are still sorting it out). They named the little vampyropod Syllipsimopodi bideni in honor of the current U.S. President with hopes of bringing attention to his climate initiatives.

Syllipsimopodi bideni, which had ten legs covered in tiny suckers, seemingly shares a common ancestor with vampire squids (which, again, are not really squids) and octopuses. Back when it was alive, during the Carboniferous Period, Montana was a shallow tropical sea, not unlike the Bay of Bengal today. That map of the world the vampyropod lived on is pretty interesting as well!

Vampyroteuthis infernalis (from http://www.itsnature.org/sea/other/vampire-squid/)

As you probably know, the financial firm Goldman Sachs has been famously compared to a mollusk.  During the bleakest depths of the great recession (assuming we are finally past such troubles) Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote, “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  Naturally, the unbelievably rich bankers were offended and the aggrieved and bombastic spokesman for the bank Lucas Van Praag, hilariously missed the point of the insult by correctly pointing out that vampire squid are actually very small and harmless to humans.  Since then, the vampire squid has become the de facto mascot of Goldman Sachs and now represents the bank in political cartoons the same way Uncle Sam appears as the United States or a dragon represents China. The Goldman Sachs squid is usually portrayed as a giant squid dressed up in gothic garb and sporting a vampire’s voracious mien.

Gothic Squid: the reason nobody had a good job for the last three years?

Goldman Sachs indeed deserves such opprobrium for crafting shell-game style derivatives and credit default swaps which helped bring about the recession (while making the bank richer) but what did the actual vampire squid do? The real victim of the quotation was this fascinating oddity of a cephalopod which shares similarities between squids and octopuses and thus merits placement in its own unique taxonomic order, the Vampyromorphida. As Van Praag observed, vampire squid are indeed quite small: they seldom exceed 6 inches (15 cm) with another 6 inches for their tentacles.  Although they have eight arms, like octopuses, the creatures additionally possess unique retractile sensory filaments and immense blue-red eyes to help them apprehend their black surroundings. They have two light-sensitive photo-receptors on their head and their bodies are covered with photophores, specialized organs capable of producing light.  The photophores at the tips of the arms are larger than the rest and appear as white spots. Vampire squid use these photophores to communicate, to dazzle predators, to hypnotize prey, and to hide themselves by mimicking ambient surface light.

An illustration of the vampire squid by Citron

Vampire squid live in the benthic depths of the ocean 2,000-3,000 feet (600-900 meters) below sea level. They “fly” through their habitat by means of ear-like fins which project from their mantle. To deal with the inhospitable conditions of such depths, they have large gills and hemocyanin-rich blue blood.  Much like ground-water dwelling catfish mentioned in a previous post, their velvety/slimy skin is oxygen permeable in order to exploit the precious oxygen to the maximum extent.  To quote Wikipedia “The animals have weak musculature but maintain agility and buoyancy with little effort thanks to sophisticated statocysts (balancing organs akin to a human’s inner ear) and ammonium-rich gelatinous tissues closely matching the density of the surrounding seawater.”

Ballooning defensive behavior (photo by R. Flood)

Unlike most cephalopods, Vampire Squid lack ink sacs (which would be of little use in the nearly lightless depths).  To make up for the loss, they possess sacs of brightly bioluminescent mucous which they squirt out at predators to dazzle and confuse them.  Such a defense costs the squid dear and is only undertaken as a measure of last resort.  Additionally when confronted by predators, the vampire squid can inflate its webbing to appear bigger (as in the photo above). The “squids” prey on larval fish, copepods, prawns, cnidarians, and other deep sea arthropods.  They are eaten by deep sea fish and by deep diving marine mammals like whales, seals, and sea lions. Little is known of their reproductive cycle although young squid pass through various stages of morphologic form possessing first one set of fins, then two sets of fins, and then one again.

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