The Weird and Wonderful World of Marine Worms

I’m about to tell you a secret. I hate snakes and worms. No, actually, hate isn’t a strong enough term. I passionately abhor them. Rationally, as a biologist, I understand their important role in ecosystems. But irrationally, there’s something about a creature with no appendages that really disgusts me.

That being said, there are some really cool legless creatures out there. And in the ocean, these legless wonders range the gamut from being beautiful to just plain terrifying.

Take, for instance, the Christmas tree worm.

christmas tree worm
Christmas tree worm at National Park of America Samoa. Image: National Park Service.

These beautiful creatures are about an inch long and burrow into corals leaving only the tip of their bodies exposed to the water. They extend their iconic Christmas-tree-shaped feeding apparatus outside of their burrows to ensnare passing tidbits of plankton for a tasty meal.

Other worms are just weird.

Remember that viral video of a spiderman-like ribbon worm?

Interestingly, these creatures are so rare that scientists aren’t exactly sure of the species. But they are pretty sure it belongs to the Gorgonorhyncus genus – a type of ribbon worm. And that crazy looking… thing… you’re seeing – it’s called a proboscis. Ribbon worms use these appendages to hunt, capturing their prey and dragging them back into their waiting mouths. The proboscis is also used as a defense mechanism. And that’s likely what it’s doing in this video – defending itself from curious humans.

bootlace worm
Bootlace worms can reach up to 180 feet long. Image: Imgur

Another fun fact about these guys – the largest species of ribbon worm, the bootlace worm (Lineus longissimus) is found in the North Sea and can grow to be an estimated 180 feet (55 meters) long!

That’s one worm I’d rather not encounter.

Then there are the marine flatworms. These beautiful creatures are hermaphroditic. And for these guys, it makes romance a little bit more exciting. To mate, flatworms actually engage in battles called penis fencing. The loser of these battles is the worm that is stabbed with the sexual organ and inseminated. That’s certainly one way to determine household responsibilities.

And then there’s the just plain creepy.

The bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois), is a terrifyingly massive segmented worm that can reach 10 feet (3 meters) long. Burying themselves deep in the  ocean floor, when a tasty fish swims by, these guys extend a feeding apparatus called a pharynx out of their mouths – essentially turning it inside-out! At the end of the pharynx are sharp, scissor-like jaws that are so powerful they can slice a fish in half.

In case you’re wondering, yes, some sources have claimed that the common name was inspired by the infamous Lorena Bobbitt.

Perhaps equally terrifying are the bloodworms. While these are favorites of live-bait fishermen, they are also more than a little unusual. Take a look at this one extending its proboscis and pincers.

At the tip of its proboscis are four pincers made of a rare type of crystalized copper called atacamite equipped with venom glands. This is incredible because it means bloodworms are able to tolerate an enormous concentration of copper in their bodies – levels which would be toxic to other organisms.

zombie worms
Osedax worms, also known as zombie worms lack a mouth or stomach. Instead, they secrete acid to digest food outside the body. Image: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Another of the creepier marine worms is the Osedax worms, aptly nicknamed zombie worms. These deep sea worms don’t actually have a traditional digestive system – no mouth, no stomach. Instead, they secrete acid from their skin to dissolve their food outside of the body and rely on bacteria living in their bodies to absorb and digest nutrients. Talk about lazy.

And it gets even better. It’s only the female worms doing this. Males are actually microscopic and live inside the bodies of female worms. That takes the idea of a clingy partner to a whole new level.

It just goes to show you, even the creepy crawlies of the ocean are pretty darn cool. And they might’ve inspired a lot of alien movies.


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