Archive for the ‘Molluscs’ Category

Well, it has been a long time, but this blog is now back. You can cease now from rending your garments and howling in anguish at the uncaring heavens, and instead sit down and calmly read about the many, many, many, many horrific abominations nature has inflicted upon us, before returning to rending your garments and howling in anguish at the uncaring heavens.

The abomination this particular blog is focusing on is called Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which literally translates as the ‘Vampire Squid from Hell’, and which is more commonly called the Vampire Squid, for reasons which are actually somewhat obscure. On a side-note, Vampire Squid from Hell is now the name of the Death Metal band I have decided to form just now, purely on the basis of that name. It has also been used as a metaphor for the bank Goldman Sachs, which is ridiculous as Cephalopoda are terrible at banking.

Although they do run most utility companies in the UK.

But it is a pretty good name, isn’t it? If you were out to design a name that summed up a rather diabolical looking critter ‘Vampire Squid from Hell’ has to me near the top of the list (perhaps pipped into third place by ‘Spider-wolves’ and ‘Bloodworm’.) Very few things that come from ‘Hell’ are generally soft or cuddly. Vampires, excepting the last decade or so, are walking, blood drinking corpses. And squid (and related Cephalopoda) are just generally creepy. Perhaps it is the tentacles, or the odd flashes of high intelligence that some species show, or perhaps the explanation is simply that Lord Cthulhu has poisoned our minds with His nightmarish psychic assaults from His tomb beneath the waves.




Most scientists also say He is a major contributor to underwater landslides and decreases in fish stocks (imagecredit: Deviantart, JohnDotegowshi).

So really, it is a shame that this name really doesn’t describe the animal. On the plus side, this name really doesn’t describe the animal. For a start, it isn’t from hell, but instead from seas all over the world. It can usually be found dwelling six hundred to eight hundred metres deep, in what is called the Mesopelagic zone or, if you want to be needlessly ominous, the twilight zone. Although not as extreme an environment as the deeper sea, it is dark enough that photosynthesis cannot occur, and so the food chain is ultimately dependent on the upper waters; with organic debris (often given the deceptively cute nickname of ‘marine snow’) falling down and getting eaten. More specifically, it dwells in the Oxygen Minimum Zone, where the concentration of oxygen in the seawater is at its lowest.

Generally, nothing good lurks in any sort of ‘Zone’. (Photo: National Geographic).

Whilst you might think that oxygen would be lower the deeper you go, this is only partially true. The deep water is generally colder than upper layers, and cold water holds more oxygen . Meanwhile, aerobic (oxygen using) bacteria feed on the marine snow, using up oxygen in the process; but most marine snow is consumed fairly high up. So deeper, colder waters may hold more oxygen than the layers above, because the water is colder and there is less marine snow to be consumed.

Anyway, the Vampire Squid is well adapted to these conditions. Its blood pigments bind oxygen far more effectively than the compounds present in other animals, and it has large gills, to soak up as much oxygen as possible. It also has a generally slow and sedate lifestyle, which reduces oxygen loss. Although it can be agile, this only occurs over short distances, and most of the time it just drifts through the waters.

So, it isn’t from hell. Nor, indeed, is it a vampire; instead, it feeds, uniquely amongst cephlapods, on small dead animals, excrement, and other organic waste, rather than living prey. As its arms are connected by a web of flesh, the vampire squid captures food by dangling long (up to eight times the length of the animal’s football sized body) filaments through the water, to which marine snow sticks. The vampire squid then transfers the food to its ‘web’, where is is covered in mucus, collected into larger and larger amounts, and eventually swallowed, which perhaps is the first time the words ‘vampire’, ‘squid’ and ‘web’ have been used in a sentence which was not immediately followed by screaming. Although this diet may not be that nutritious, it at least means it doesn’t use up that much energy. Indeed, even its predator avoidance tactics are a tad lazy. When threatened by predators, it wraps itself in its web, making it appear larger and covered with spikes. As well as this, bioluminiscent patches on the tips of its arms glow blue, confusing predators. Finally, if ‘turning into a spikey deathball’ and ‘trippy light show’ don’t work, it simply squirts out a cloud of mucus, mixed with bioluminiscent bacteria, and escapes in the confusion.

A vampire squid almost looking cute. (Photo: National Geographic).

A vampire squid looking rather less cute. (Photo: mythsmadereal.blogspot).

Finally, it isn’t actually a squid. It has eight arms, but is not an octopus either, although it is more closely related to them. Instead, it is in a group called the Vampyromorphida which consists entirely of this species and a number of extinct ones.

Again, scientists favour the ‘Cthulhu’ theory.



In short, the name ‘Vampire Squid from Hell’ scores 0/3 for accuracy, but 100/10 for nightmarish visions. And after all, isn’t promoting a sense of dark horror the main point of taxonomy?

Again, a number of good sources are:


Snail Power!

Posted: September 14, 2013 in Molluscs

Welcome to another episode of Horrific Animals of the World. This one contains, as usual, a romantic scene, a discussion on the uses of condoms in farming, venomous snails, tropical beaches and neurotoxins. Using all the above words in the same sentence has now probably got us onto all sorts of government watchlists.

So pretty standard, really.

Imagine that you are striding along with your significant other, on a warm, sunny evening, upon a sun kissed beach somewhere along the Indo-Pacific Ocean. The waves are lapping gently against the white sands; occasionally revealing submerged coral reefs. Palm trees wave slightly in the light, cooling breeze; and you and your loved one are at peace with yourselves, with each other, and with the world. Of course, the key word here is ‘imagine’, because in all likelihood you are reading this in Britain, which last had a warm, sunny evening in 1968.

The British version of the above scene. If you’re lucky.

You see a brightly coloured shell in the crystal clear waters, and, laughing, you bend down to pick it up, to present it to your beloved. It then immediately stings him or her, possibly lethally. This is – generally – considered a bit of a deal breaker when it comes to relationships.The problem was that you picked up a cone snail, Conus (also sometimes called Gastridium) geographus, and this snail is perhaps the most venomous snail in the entire world. (Is that even an award? Ed.)

Probably not worth breaking up with someone for. Or killing them.

Like all cone snails, C. geographus has the nifty little trick of stinging its prey with a harpoon loaded with toxins. This is done by a modified tooth, which when not in use is stored in an organ called the radular sac. Venom is then pushed into these modified teeth. When a prey animal (in the case of C. geographus, a small fish) is detected, a long tube called the probosis is extended towards the fish. The poison tooth is then ‘fired’ by muscular contractions, usually into the fishes gills, killing it pretty much instantly. C. geographus appears to use the ‘net hunting’ approach, in which small fish which wander into the snail’s mouth are eaten (Johnson and Stablum 1971, ). Other cone snails use a ‘hook and line’ method, shooting a harpoon towards a prey animal and then reeling it in.

Now, hopefully, your beloved is not a fish. Or even a mermaid. However, the problem is that these cone snails are extravagantly toxic; as in they can kill a person just as well as they can kill a fish. The common explanation for this is that because fish are fast moving, and snails are…well, not, a large dose of poison is needed to kill the fish instantly, before it escapes. However, Johnson and Stablum, who did the first studies of the feeding behaviour of this particular cone snail, speculate that the reason why these cone snails are so toxic is that it is actually for defence. Against what, they didn’t specify, so we are forced to assume that some awful hybrid of a shark and octopus lurks in the deeps, feeding exclusively on cone snails.

As studied in this highly respected scientific documentary.

Now, the good news is that a sting is not always fatal. That said, there are at least thirty cases (Nelson 2004) of deaths on record due to snail stings, which we can’t help but feel must be one of the most embarrassing, none-sexual things to have on your death certificate ever. There is no specific anti-venom, and treatment mainly appears to consist of just keeping you alive whilst your body breaks down the many, many, many, many, many toxins you have been injected with (

Whilst most animals are content with having one or two major toxins in their bites or stings, the average cone snail has between 50 and 200 neurotoxins (Hu et al 2012); exactly which toxins are produced in what amounts appears to vary throughout the animal’s life. Together, these toxins block all sorts of vital receptors and channels vital for the continued function of your nervous system. Various experiments have shown that different toxins will make a mouse do anything from go straight to sleep, to shake, to run around in circles, to just shake its head. The sting also appears to contain a powerful painkiller, which at least means you may not be in screaming agony as your entire nervous system rapidly seizes up.

In fact, cone snails may be a boon for science in more ways than simply allowing scientists to take intriguing, snail based revenge. Since there are so many neurotoxins present, cone snail venom provides a rich source of potential new drugs and treatments (for example a painkiller more powerful than morphine, but without all the side effects of getting addicted); in addition to allowing scientists to be very, very specific in exactly which parts of the nervous system they can block. Indeed, some species of cone snails are now being farmed especially for their venom, with condoms being used as a vital part of this venom farming (Nelson 2004), despite the fact that asking for several dozen venomous snails, a fishtank and a pack of condoms will usually lead to a long series of hard, puzzled and unsympathetic stares.

Proof, yet again, that screaming “FOR SCIENCE!” excuses anything.