Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Misleading Nomenclature and the case of the Vampire Squid

Not the Scourge you're looking for...Image courtesy of MBARI
Pictures: Vampire Squid's Surprising Diet Revealed

Word is going around: the Vampire Squid is not what we thought!  Apparently, after the discovery and completely misleading naming of this creature, some people assumed that it was the "bloodthirsty scourge of the sea." What could you expect from an animal named Vampyroteuthis infernalis- roughly translated "the vampire squid from hell"? Obviously something has to be the bloodthirstiest scourgiest member of the marine community, and it's definitely not the manatee.  The Vampire Squid looks fierce; it could scourge the sea. Well, apparently it's the cleanliest, vacuuming-est sea creature.  It feeds on "marine snow"- dead stuff. It's the scourge of sea dust bunnies.

I'm kind of let down. And obviously so is the New York Times, National Geographic, and every other major news outlet that publishes "science news" because it's been big news for over a week. Over a Week! Extra Extra: Not the Scourge We Thought! So, why is it that this "news" is so newsworthy? This animal is weird looking! But not a killer! What?!

What should be the news:

No one really responds to the fact that this organism is so hilariously named (it's like the obese guy with the nickname tiny of the ocean population). And there doesn't seem to really be any conversations about the obvious concerns that could arise from imposing ideas about diet and disposition through taxonomic naming. What's up taxonomy? What's your purpose? I don't know. Why don't we ask Dung Beetles named after Romney, Cheney, and Bush.

The Vampire Squid was named in 1904, but is particularly difficult to study because it is a deep sea creature and they are difficult to remove from the depths alive (they are often crushed by pressure when trying to bring them onto ships and arrive dead), let alone to culture and study in marine laboratories. If you are lucky enough to get a pelagic species to live in an aquarium, it's equally as difficult to figure out what they eat, get them to eat, and figure out what is "natural" to the creature versus "aquarium based." Especially difficult with this creature, because it apparently feeds on something that is difficult to replicate in the aquarium setting
The first vampire squid probably looks like the rest of these specimens.  Labeled and stuffed into a specimen jar on a shelf next to thousands of others. 

Photos of the ichthyology collections of the National Museum of Natural History.  Museum Support Center, Suitland.  Author's personal collection.

But, it should beg the question: how do the names we give animals influence our conceptions about them? It's something to think about, especially when many deep sea specimens are scientifically identified by one specimen- possibly dead by the time it is even viewed by a human (as the first vampire squid most assuredly was), sketched or photographed, possibly represented by a DNA coding, preserved in alcohol and shelved with thousands and thousands of other single specimens.  Naming systems, based on single specimens, draw a picture of the deep sea that could be quiet different than reality.

So, how do we link these preserved, single specimens to the larger ocean community? And what role does taxonomy play in this linkage? More on this question next time...

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