SOMEWHERE ALONG THE COAST of the Monterey Bay, a group of biologists are hunting vampires. In September 2012, the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biology ran an article by biologists Hendrik J. T. Hoving and Bruce Robison on that most elusive of deep-sea creatures: Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from hell. Living several thousand feet beneath the surface, it reaches a length of barely a foot; its eyes (an inch in diameter) are proportionately the largest of any species in the world. It can survive in extremely low-oxygen environments (it’s the only cephalopod that spends its entire life cycle in the Oxygen Minimum Layer of the ocean), and lives without sunlight; or rather, it produces its own, via bioluminescence, which it uses to startle predators, daze prey, and attract mates. Unusual among members of the order Octopoda, its eight tentacles are connected by a web, giving them the appearance of a hood that it can draw over itself when threatened. It was this cloak-like appearance that led the German naturalist Carl Chun, who was not without a sense of humor, to give it its name in 1903. Later, biologists who found specimens named them Cirroteuthis macrope, Watasella Nigra, and Retroteuthis Pacifica, among others, but Chun’s diabolical moniker came first, and it’s the one that has stuck.
Hoving and Robison’s recent article, which got a great deal of play on the Internet, discusses in detail the vampyroteuthis’ feeding habits: specifically the way in which it lives on what biologists call “marine snow”: surprisingly nutritious flecks of animal carcasses, plankton, and feces that drift downward from above. Hoving and Robison’s interest, like that of all marine biologists, is in preserving the sea (which is to say, preserving it as it was when humans began to seriously study it less than two hundred years ago). In a video released by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Robison talks about the importance of the vampyroteuthis’ habitat, the pelagic zone, and the challenges the squid and its neighbors currently face: “They are threatened by ocean warming, decreasing oxygen, pollution, over-fishing, industrialization and dozens of other change taking place in the deep. We have a responsibility to learn all we can about these amazing animals, and to protect them from the greatest danger to life in the deep: the human species.” The video’s narrator continues this theme:
This zone is home to many species eaten by fish that humans eat, such as tuna and salmon. Many whales, turtles, and giant squid also rely on this zone for their food. Even though all of this is out of sight, any upset in the balance here can ultimately have a devastating effect on what humans have come to expect from the oceans, a place that provides food for millions of people.
The pelagic zone, in other words, is endangered because of our activity, and it’s important because it produces food we eat. Our desire to know about and save the vampyroteuthis infernalis is motivated chiefly by our desire to know more about ourselves, and focused less on the animal itself and more on its relationship to the humans researching and writing about it.
Ask not what you can do for the vampire squid from hell; ask what the vampire squid from hell can do for you....read more