The Jurassic world of the vampire squid

When you think Jurassic Park, you probably imagine a chomping T-Rex, or even a giant snapping Mosasaurus leaping out of the ocean. But how about vampire squid?

Though it didn’t make the cut into any blockbuster movie, the vampire squid is one of the most mysterious creatures of the ocean, with a single species still alive to this day. The vampire squid Vampyroteuthis infernalis,of the Order Vampyromorphida, lives in extreme deep ocean environments that often have little oxygen. They don’t want to suck you blood, but get their name from their cloak-like spooky appearance. They actually live off detritus floating around the abyss.

Using modern 3D imaging techniques, exceptionally preserved fossil specimens of an ancient relative Vampyronassa rhodanica have been re-analysed. Unlike the modern-day species, this Jurassic vampire squid revealed it was well adapted to actively hunt, and had suckers that could hold onto its prey.

Palaeontology, invertebrate, fossils, cephalopods, squid, suction, jurassic
Photograph showing the exceptional 3-D preservation of the soft tissue, including the suckers. Credit: P. Loubry, CR2P.

“Suckers are really useful for the identification of these animals at high taxonomic levels,” says Dr Patrick Smith, one of Australia’s fossil cephalopod experts based at the Australian Museum. “This study gives us a much better resolution of how those suckers were constructed and how they compare to other living and extinct cephalopod groups.”

This creature lived 164 million years ago, had eight arms and two small fins across their small oval-shaped body of around 10 cm in length. Vampyronassa rhodanica had muscular suckers on the tips of two long arms, used to create a watertight seal, which would aid in the manipulation and retention of prey. It also had conical appendages for sensing prey, indicating it was an active hunter.

“This gives us insight into the evolutionary transition of the vampyromorphs,” says Smith. “The modern-day vampire squid is highly specialised for feeding on plankton in deep cold-water environments. Yet in the fossil record, this species seems to be predators of fish and possibly other cephalopods.”

While the fossil species Vampyronassa rhodanica are from Jurassic deposits of La Voulte-sur-Rhône (France), Australia has its own Vampyromorph species in the Eromanga Basin, Queensland, albeit from the slightly younger Cretaceous period. When piecing together this globally spanning record, we can see how vampire squids and other cephalopods groups changed across two major extinction events – the Triassic-Jurassic, around 200 million years ago, and the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, around 66 million years ago.

“We have several groups of Cretaceous cephalopods in Australia. Unfortunately, none of them with soft tissue are preserved quite like the ones from the Jurassic,” says Smith. “We have at least two species of vampyromorphs preserved in the Eromanga basin, which may have reached up to six metres long.”

This research has been published in Scientific Reports. You can also read more about the cephalopods of La Voulte-sur-Rhône (France) and the Eromanga Basin (Australia).

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