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A Brilliant Defense

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18. Vampire squid_DF.3759.jpg

Vampire squid model

©AMNH/D. Finnin


Humans marvel at the beauty of glowing organisms, but usually, nature’s light displays serve a much more practical purpose.

When pushed to the limit by a predator, the vampire squid envelops its adversary in a smokescreen of glowing particles. After ejecting luminescent mucus from the tips of its eight tentacles, this master of disguise makes its escape, “flying” through water with its fins rather than jet-propelling like most other cephalopods. The sticky mucus, which glows for up to 10 minutes, may even coat the predator and make it more vulnerable to attack.

While this technique is the vampire squid’s last resort, the animal has evolved a suite of finely controlled light tricks to avoid becoming a meal. When threatened, the creature curls its Dracula-like cloak of webbed arms around its soft body, exposing a black underside and fanglike projections, or cirri. From this “pineapple” position, meant to intimidate predators, the animal waves its glowing arm tips in a confusing display of fireworks. Should the predator bite off an arm tip, it can be sacrificed and regenerated, much like a lizard’s tail.

Meanwhile, two large light organs that mimic eyes peer from beneath the cloak. The vampire squid can slowly contract the muscles around these photophores, giving the impression that the “eyes” are shrinking and that the squid has sped away.

With all these moving and glowing parts, predators are often too disoriented to strike. Scientists still have much to learn about this creature of light, which lives 3,000 feet below sea level in the zone of the ocean with the lowest concentration of oxygen.

See a model of a vampire squid at 350 percent its natural size in Creatures of Light

A version of this story appeared in Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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