Vampyroteuthis infernalis, literally the "vampire squid from hell," doesn't prey on other marine life, in spite of its terrifying name. In fact, a new study from researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute suggests that the mysterious deep-sea "living fossil" harmlessly subsists primarily on the ocean's waste products, including fecal matter and discarded shells. Here's what you should know about this strange creature:
Why is it called a living fossil?
"Living fossils are animals that have been on Earth for ages," says Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News, "surviving all major extinction events and not seeming to change very much over millions of years." The foot-long cephalopod — a category that includes squid and octopi — brandishes an umbrella-like cloak and lives 3,000 feet below the surface, where there is very little oxygen. Part of the secret to its longevity, say researchers, is its "eclectic diet," which allows the vampire squid to avoid competing with other predators.
What does it eat?
Scientists didn't know until the team scoured 24 hours of video tape of vampire squid in their natural environments over the last 20 years. They also analyzed the digestive tracts of aquarium specimens to see what was inside. "Instead of containing chewed-up fish or crustaceans" like most other cephalopods, the vampire squid consumed scraps like "fish eggs, bits of crustacean antennae and eyes and legs, larvae, and even larvae feces," says Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience. In essence, they're the "garbage disposals of the ocean."
How can the vampire squid possibly digest this junk?
To find out, researchers sprinkled dead animal particles in fish tanks containing the squid. The team "witnessed the cephalopod extend a fine, long filament from its umbrella-like mouth," which extends eight times its body length, says Liat Clark at Wired. Debris sticks to the filament, which is then retracted. The vampire squid then coats the tiny scraps in mucus secreted from its suckers, and places the glued-together garbage in its mouth.
Do any other animals eat like this?
Not that we know of. "Vampire squid have always had these really funny long things that stick out of their body, and scientists like me had no idea what they were used for," says researcher Richard Yong, a biological oceanographer from the University of Hawaii. "I would be shocked if any other marine organism ate in such a way."