My Cephalopod Year


Best of 2020

We’re away until January 4, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2020. Enjoy your holiday!

Ewald Rübsamen, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Way down deep, in the perpetual electric night of the water column—a place where sunlight doesn’t register time or silver filament—the vampire squid glides in search of a meal of marine snow. These lifeless bits of sea dander are actually the decomposing particles of animals who died hundreds of feet above the midnight zone. The vampire squid reaches for this snow with two long ribbons of skin, which are separate from its eight tentacles. If it is truly hungry, it trains its large eye on a glow, the lure of something larger—a gulper eel, perhaps, or an anglerfish waddling through the inky water. The squid’s eye is about the size of a shooter marble, but this is nevertheless the largest eye-to-body ratio of any animal on the planet.

If the squid feels threatened or wants to disappear, perhaps no other creature in the ocean knows how to convey that with a more dazzling yet effective show. When the vampire squid pulse-swims away, each of its arm tips glow and wave in different directions, confusing for any predator. To make an even more speedy getaway, the squid uses jet propulsion by flapping its fins down toward its mantle and simultaneously blasting a stream of water from its siphon—all of its arms in one direction. In the next stroke, the squid raises all of its arms over its head in what is called a “pineapple posture.” The underside of these arms is lined with tiny toothlike structures called “cirri,” giving an appearance of fangs ready to bite down on anything that wants to chase it down for a snack.

As if that wasn’t enough to shoo away a predator, the vampire squid discharges a luminescent cloud of mucus instead of ink. The congealed swirl and curlicue of light temporarily baffles the predator, who ends up not knowing where or what to chomp—while the vampire squid whooshes away, meters ahead. It’s as if you were chasing someone and they stopped, turned, and tossed a bucketful of large, gooey green sequins at your face.