Published: October 29, 2016

Inside the World of the Elusive Vampire Squid

Illustration of a black squid with red eyes

Vampire squids live in a world totally alien to us, and almost qualify as alien themselves. They spend most of their lives floating in the ocean’s deep, dark, midwater depths that don’t have much oxygen. A vampire squid brought onboard a ship by a trawl is black with a huge pointed beak—an infernal appearance if there ever was one. Despite their threatening appearance, studies of this ancient group (we think they had their heyday during the time of the dinosaurs) have improved our knowledge of cephalopod evolution. They are as different from squids as squids are from octopods.    

Illustration of the pinkish arms and web of a vampire squid, next to the black exterior. The vampire squid is shown with red eyes and two fins off the side of its head.

Illustration from The Cephalopoda by Carl Chun.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

First named in 1903, vampire squids were a near-total mystery for over a century. We knew that, like octopuses, Vampyroteuthis infernalis have eight arms. However, they also have two long tentacles on the upper side of their bodies. These are unique among cephalopods; squid and cuttlefish tentacles are on the underside of the body, and octopods don’t have any at all. It wasn’t until we could use deep-sea vehicles to film vampire squids in their own habitat that we learned how they use those tentacles. Vampire squids feed, in part, on the sinking bodies of animals that lived and died in shallower waters (maybe we should call them zombie squids!). They extend their tentacles into the water where they gather debris. Then, they essentially lick them and eat the debris (not quite a bloodthirsty predator after all…).  

Vampire squids may have gotten their name from the habit of wrapping their cloak-like web around their head and body when disturbed. Although it may sound as effective as an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, in the inky darkness where vampire squids live, hiding in “plain sight” (if there were light!), is a good strategy.

Scientists are still learning about these animals that provide such an interesting glimpse into cephalopod evolution. See a vampire squid in action, via the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. That video was made before we learned how the tentacles function; in this video, find out what they really eat!