Newly discovered species of vampire squid from the Jurassic era found ‘with prey in their arms’

The discovery of a vampire squid specimen from the Early Jurassic could help reveal the poorly understood ancestry of this unique species. The fact that it was buried while holding prey adds unusual additional insight into its place in the ecosystem.

Vampire squids are not true squids, as they are more closely related to octopuses than to the creatures they are named after. Members of the family can be identified in the fossil record because they have two filaments in addition to their eight arms, instead of the larger tentacles that squids have. Yet they are still very poorly understood.

Today, only one species of vampire squid survives, but for once this is no reflection on the damage humanity has done to the planet. As far as we can tell, only one species has existed for a very long time. More than a dozen ancestral species are known from times when they apparently lived in shallower waters, but they are still enough to make any discovery valuable.

A discovery unearthed in Luxembourg in 2022 that dates back about 180 million years is even more valuable than most. It is a species we have not seen before, now named Simoniteuthis Michaeli. It is also unusually complete, with the hard internal part known as the gladius and the tips of all eight arms visible. It would have been 38 centimeters (15 in) long.

Simoniteuthis Michaeli

The gladius (hard mouthparts) of Simoniteuthis Michaeli seen from different angles and shown schematically.

Image credits: Fuchs et al., Swiss Journal of Paleontology, 2024 (CC BY 4.0)

Two fish are close to the specimen’s mouth and are apparently brought out through the arms. The scientists who described the fossil attribute its death to sinking distraction. This happens when sea animals are too busy eating or fornicating to realize that they are sinking in water so low in oxygen (hypoxic) that they cannot survive or escape.

An author who reported this finding previously described a case of distraction sinking involving two vampire squids of different species. One of these squids was feeding on the other when, it is believed, both sank into hypoxic water. Such waters were more likely to preserve a specimen. Nevertheless, the fact that such a substantial proportion of ancient vampire squid fossils appear to have died in this process suggests that this was some sort of threat in the Early Jurassic. The modern adaptation of vampire squids to hypoxic water apparently came much later. Other cephalopods were also sensitive to distraction.

At least partial traces of all eight arms are visible in the S. Michaeli fossil, but there is no trace of the two filament tentacles. Nevertheless, the team describing it is convinced that it is a vampire squid, and not an unusual-looking octopus.

As one of the oldest known vampire squid fossils, the discovery could shed light on their evolution, but so far it only adds more confusion. In particular, we don’t know when the two filaments used by modern vampire squids to scoop up small organisms and floating debris, known as “marine snow,” evolved. This instance offers no answers.

Simoniteuthis Michaeli

The plate (A–D) and counterplate (E–G) of the vampire squid fossil in overview and close-ups of key parts, and under UV light, including the muscles of the arms (C and D) and the prey on fish (F).

Image credits: Fuchs et al., Swiss Journal of Paleontology, 2024 (CC BY 4.0)

Given their origins as an escape from the true squid, “taxa belonging to the vampyromorph clade must certainly exhibit a brachial crown consisting of ten well-developed arms, or eight arms plus a rudimentary pair,” the authors write. However, like most other ancient vampire squid fossils, neither can be seen in this one.

The genus name honors Jo Simon, a volunteer at the Luxembourg National Museum of Natural History, while the species is named after the museum’s director, Patrick Michaely.

Vampire squids have some of the worst PR in the animal kingdom. Even the surviving species’ scientific name means “vampire squid from hell.” After accomplishing the remarkable feat of adapting to life in virtually oxygen-free ocean depths, they are wrongly lumped together with not only the vampire name, but also a completely false connection to extreme capitalism.

If you ever encountered a living vampire squid, they wouldn’t pose a threat, let alone drink your blood or offer you an exploitative mortgage. You would probably have been crushed to death long ago by the extreme pressure of their domain, but given their modest size, they wouldn’t eat you anyway unless something else had chopped you to pieces.

The findings are published in the Swiss Journal of Paleontology.

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