MOSS LANDING -- Vampire squid aren't blood suckers. They're "snot" suckers to put it not so politely. Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have discovered that these unearthly creatures don't eat live prey, as their closest relatives, octopus and squid do. Instead, they drift in the ocean, relying on long filaments to capture floating debris that they coat with mucous before pulling it into their mouths. "They live life in the slow lane," said Henk-Jan Hoving, the researcher who conducted the new study, along with Senior Scientist Bruce Robison.

Vampire squid live in the deep ocean depths where there is little oxygen. Most of their diet consists of "marine snow," which is made up of organic matter that drifts down from upper ocean layers where there are a lot more animals.

With their deep red skin and webbed arms lined with spiky-looking "cirri" (which are actually harmless), it's no wonder they were dubbed with the scientific name, Vampyroteuthis infernalis -- latin for "vampire squid from hell."

Vampire squid, about the size of a football, belong in the same class of animals as octopus and squid, collectively known as cephalopods. In fact, vampire squid were originally mistaken for an octopus when they were first discovered about a hundred years ago.

Scientists have long tried to study what vampire squid eat, but had been limited to pulling the squid out of the ocean and examining their stomach contents. They found small pieces of algae and tiny marine animals and lots of mucous. It was inconclusive evidence, offering hints of their diet, but not how the squid caught their food.

In addition to peering at stomach contents from museum specimens and observing captured vampire squid in the lab, Hoving relied on footage caught by high definition cameras mounted on the institute's underwater remotely operated vehicles.

For 25 years, the remotely operated vehicles' cameras have recorded everything they encounter in the water. Specialists review the footage and every organism they see is logged in a database called the video annotation and reference system (VARS). Hoving hunted down every piece of footage in VARS with vampire squid and found 170 clips that yielded 23 hours of footage.

Caught on film, vampire squid mostly floated motionless in the water, their long filaments snaked out alongside them with pieces of marine snow stuck to them.

They manage to survive the low oxygen environment of the deep sea by using as little energy as possible. Cephalopod blood is better than most animals at grabbing oxygen molecules, so they don't have to work as hard at breathing. They have neutral buoyancy so they don't have to expend any effort to float in the water.

With their drift grazing technique, vampire squid also save energy because they don't have to actively hunt for their food. That's unlike any other animal in the same class. "It shows how diversified cephalopods are," Hoving said.

The new findings help scientists understand how the feeding habits of cephalopods evolved and gives a glimpse into life in the deep sea.

ON THE NET

To view a YouTube video of the vampire squid, visit: http://youtu.be/X8oWnbcLI40