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Vampire squid fossil turns out to be a 30 million year old

 

If it has a nightmarish name, the vampire squid is not a dangerous predator.

It hides in deep, dark water, waiting to catch crumbs of organic matter that pass by.

But since when has it been behaving like this? An unexpected rediscovery brings new clues.

The vampire of the abyss (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), also called vampire squid, is a small cephalopod that lives in the ocean depths.


A rediscovered fossil



In spite of its relatively frightening morphology, this animal rarely exceeds 30 centimeters in length and does not present any danger to humans.


1. Modern vampire squid Vs old fossil

Recently, researchers have rediscovered a 30 million year old fossil of vampire squid.

Its study should enable scientists to understand why, today, the modern vampire squid can live at great depths, whereas most other squid species cannot.


The modern vampire squid can thrive in deep, oxygen-poor ocean waters, unlike many other squid species that require shallower habitat along continental shelves.

However, few of the fossil ancestors of today's vampire squid survive, so biologists are not sure when these elusive cephalopods developed the ability to live with little oxygen.


The new analysis of the fossils helps fill a 120 million year gap in the evolution of vampire squid; revealing that the ancestors of modern vampire squid were already living in the deep oceans during the Oligocene, 23 million to 34 million years ago.

These squids probably evolved into low-oxygen waters during the Jurassic, explains Martin Košťák, a paleontologist at Charles University in Prague.


2. A rediscovered fossil

Košťák and colleagues found the long-lost fossil in the collections of the Hungarian Natural History Museum in 2019, searching for fossils of cuttlefish ancestors.

The fossil was originally discovered in 1942 by Hungarian paleontologist Miklós Kretzoi, who identified it as a squid about 30 million years old and named it Necroteuthis hungarica.

More recent studies, however, have argued that it was an ancestor of the cuttlefish.


In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, the museum was set on fire and the fossil was reportedly destroyed. The rediscovery was a pleasant surprise.

Košťák and his colleagues studied the fossil by scanning electron microscopy and performed a geochemical analysis.

They first discovered that the initial identification of Kretzoi was correct: the fossil comes from a squid, not a cuttlefish ancestor.


The specimen of the vampire


The animal's inner shell, or gladius, which forms the backbone of its body, is about 15 centimeters long, suggesting that the squid was about 35 cm long with the tentacles included.

This is just slightly larger than the modern vampire squid, which reaches about 28 cm in length.


3. Animals living in the ocean depths

The sediments surrounding the fossil show no trace of microfossils, often found on the sea floor, suggesting that squid did not live in shallow water.

The researchers also analyzed the levels of carbon variation in the sediment and found that the sediment probably came from an anoxic or oxygen-poor environment.

These conditions are characteristic of the deep ocean floor.

By observing the layers of rock above where the fossil was deposited outside of what is now Budapest.


The researchers were also able to show that the squid probably could not have survived in the shallower seas of the time.

The shallow sea deposits showed very high levels of particular plankton that thrives in salt-poor and nutrient-rich environments - conditions that modern vampire squid cannot tolerate.


Researchers at the Monterey Bay Research Institute have discovered that when hiding in the deep sea, these squid do not behave like the nightmarish predators their name suggests;

Rather, they wait in their dark habitats for crumbs of organic matter to float away.

Then they capture these pieces with suction cups covered with mucus.


4. Vampire squid: why does it live in the abyss

New research, published in the journal Communications Biology, shows how the ancestors of the vampire squid learned to live where other squid couldn't.

Looking deeper into the fossil record, the oldest fossils of this group of squid are from the Jurassic period, between 201 million and 174 million years ago, and are generally found in anoxic sediments.


Life in stable, low-oxygen levels brings evolutionary advantages: low predation pressure and less competition.

There is a gap in the fossil record of the Lower Cretaceous, which began about 145 million years ago.


The squid may have already moved into the deeper ocean at this stage, explains Košťák, driven by its experiments with anoxic conditions during the Jurassic period.

This deep-sea lifestyle could explain why squid survived the crisis that killed the non-Avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous.


5. Summary: The rediscovery was a happy surprise.

The fossil comes from a squid, not from an ancestor of the cuttlefish.

The inner shell of the animal, or gladius, which forms the backbone of its body, is about 15 centimeters long, whereas the length of the squid including the arms is about 13.7 inches (35 centimeters).

 

This size is only slightly larger than the modern vampire squid, which reaches an overall length of about 11 inches (28 centimeters).

The sediments surrounding the fossils show no trace of the microfossils often found on the ocean floor. 

This shows that ancient squid did not live in shallow water.

The researchers also analyzed the degree of carbon variation in the sediments and found that the sediments probably came from an anoxic or oxygen-poor environment.


This condition is a characteristic of the deep sea floor.

By looking at the rock layers above where the fossils were stored outside Budapest, the researchers were also able to show that squid might not have been able to survive in shallower seas at that time.

The shallow marine deposits have very high levels of certain plankton that thrive in a salt-poor and highly nutritious environment, conditions that modern vampire squid cannot tolerate.


Researchers at the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBRI) discovered that while hiding in the deep sea, this squid did not behave as the nightmarish predator its name implies.

Instead, they wait in their dark habitat for crumbs of organic matter to fly away. 

Then they caught the pieces with a suction cup covered with mucus, found MBARI.






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