Rarely Seen Vampire Squid Dredged Up From 3,000ft Under the Sea

A bizarre "vampire squid" has been pulled from the ocean and some scientists believe that the deep-sea specimen represents an entirely new species.

The specimen in question was collected during a Natural Science Foundation of China expedition in the northwestern South China Sea from a depth of around 2,600-3,300 feet in 2016.

A group of Chinese scientists subsequently conducted a study of the specimen, taking several photographs in the process. They determined in a paper published last month that the specimen should be described as a new species of vampire squid.

But the paper, which was posted to the preprint server bioRxiv, has not yet been peer-reviewed and other scientists have expressed skepticism about the findings.

A black vampire squid speciment
The vampire squid specimen studied by Dajun Qiu and colleagues. This specimen was collected from a depth of around 3,000 feet in the South China Sea. Dajun Qiu et al.

Vampire squids are unusual, deep-sea creatures found around the world in the temperate and tropical regions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. But because they live so deep they are rarely seen by humans.

These elusive animals usually prefer deep, dark and cold habitats typically between about 2,000 and 3,000 feet below the surface.

The ocean layers where they tend to live are characterized by low oxygen concentrations. But vampire squids have evolved a number of special adaptations that have enabled them to thrive in such extreme environments.

Despite its name and appearance, this animal is neither a squid nor an octopus. Instead, vampire squids belong to their own order of cephalopods—the group of mollusks that contains all the above animals in addition to cuttlefish.

Vampire squids, which can grow to around 12 inches in length, are the only known surviving member of their order of animals, which is called Vampyromorphida.

Vampire squids were first described in 1903 as a single species called Vampyroteuthis infernalis—which means "vampire squid from hell" in Latin.

It is unclear whether or not another species of vampire squid exists, although some scientists have been trying to resolve that question.

Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, told Newsweek in October that some vampire squids look superficially different but that only one species had been recognized.

Vampire squid seen off the coast of California, for example, tend to have a reddish, rust color, while those observed in other parts of the world are black.

The authors of the recent bioArxiv post said that while Vampyroteuthis infernalis has been the only accepted species to date, morphological differences between specimens from the Gulf of Guinea, Africa and California have suggested the possibility that others exist.

They said that their data "strongly supports" the existence of two distinct vampire squid species, based on the specimen found in the South China Sea, which they call Vampyroteuthis southchinaseais. They came to the conclusion that it was a new species after conducting an analysis of the animal's body shape and genetics.

Black vampire squid next to a ruler
The vampire squid specimen next to a ruler to show its size. A group of scientists have claimed that this specimen represents a new vampire squid species but others are skeptical. Dajun Qiu et al.

The scientists argue that V. southchinaseais differs from V. infernalis in the shape of its "tail" and lower beak, the position of its photophores (light-producing organs), as well as its genetic characteristics.

The photophores are found across the body of vampire squids, giving these animals the ability to produce dazzling light displays that may help to distract predators, or even attract prey.

Additionally, V. southchinaseais has pair of photophores located between the fins and tail, with a lower beak featuring a broad, prolonged wing. This they compared to V. infernalis, which the authors said lacks a tail, has photophores near the fins and has a lower beak with a broad, short wing.

"This discovery raises an interesting question for future work on the ecological roles of new species of Vampyroteuthis in deep-sea ecosystem," Dajun Qiu, an author of the bioRxiv paper with the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Newsweek.

But some scientists are skeptical that the specimen the Chinese team described actually represents a new vampire squid species.

Robison told Newsweek that while he did not have the expertise to evaluate the team's molecular data, he said the anatomical findings of the bioArxiv post should be interpreted with significant caution. He also noted that the paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.

"I know the anatomy of these animals pretty well and I am very skeptical of the manuscript based on two of their contentions," Robison told Newsweek. "First, they claim that their new species has a photophore between the fin and 'tail' implying that V. infernalis does not.

"This is incorrect. V. infernalis have large photophores in that position, although they are not evident in most photographs because they have a cover that the animal opens and closes at will," he said. "These authors have clearly not examined the scientific literature thoroughly because these photophores are described in several publications."

Secondly, he said that the vampire squid has a very flexible "tail" that changes shape depending on how it has been handled.

"Net-collected specimens show a wide variance in shape that includes both variations that these authors use to distinguish their new species," Robison said.

Robison called it "foolish" to describe a new species based on a single specimen, as is the case with the bioArxiv post.

"There's no hard and fast rule about how many specimens are required to describe a new species, but more is better," Robison said. "With a single specimen, there's always the chance that you have an aberrant form of an already recognized species. So the more your 'new' species looks like a described species, the more specimens you want to use to show that the distinctions make it different."