Thursday, November 10, 2011

Zombie Worms - Critter of the Week!

Overall, scientists who work with worms do not get the same amount of public respect and interest that those who work with dolphins and whales do. Go figure. You are at a party, someone asks you what you do, you tell them you work with dolphins and whales and boom, everybody wants to be your friend.

Try the same thing with worms. Fireworms, feather duster worms, sphagetti worms, it just does not matter - no respect, just a bit of polite feigned interest and then everyone moves off.

But what if you studied "ZOMBIE WORMS!"

Okay, people might listen a bit longer and still move off - but with more respect this time. Because after all, zombies are all the rage these days; worms, not so much. And although zombies do tend to have earthworms, the worms I am referring to are a fairly newly discovered group of saltwater worms that eat through bones of sunken whales.

Now this is an odd group, as is typical of animals that focus nearly inedible foods, they have symbiotic bacteria in their gut to do all of the real work.Still, it just shows how diverse life in the ocean is. Nothing is wasted, everything is food and the ocean is still full of surprises. Scientists at Monterey Bay Research Institute discovered the worms in 2002. They then promptly sank a set of whale carcasses in deep water off the coast to check these new worms out, with the bonus that at parties they could now claim to work on whales - although dead ones.
Zombie worm (Genus Osedax)  image from N Higgs via SOEST site

They found that there was not just one species of these worms, but several. And, as time went by, more and more were found around the world, with more and more variety. Worms are truly amazing creatures.

How does this relate to us here in Hawaii?  Well, one of the researchers at SOEST, our parent department, recently published a paper on zombie worm tracks in a 3 million year old Pliocene whale bone . It was from the Mediterranean (UH researchers get around), showing that these worms have been widespread in the oceans for a long long time.

So next time you take a swim, think about worms. Maybe the beautiful feather duster worms, maybe the fireworms you should not touch, or maybe the zombie worms that can take care of your bones once you are dead.

To really learn about zombie worms I suggest:
Monterey Bay Research Institute page on Zombie worms (beautiful pictures too): A Motley Collection of Bone Worms
SOEST News Release: Whale bone fossil records feast for “zombie worms”
BBC News Article: Fossil Feast for "Zombie Worms"

Bonus science nerd questions
1. Should the earthworms in movie zombies be considered parasites or scavengers - after all the zombies are dead, yet sort of living?
2. If you sink dead whales to work on zombie worms in the ocean, can you tell people at parties that you work with whales and dolphins and leave it at that? Or should you be more specific and tell them that you work on bone eating worms from the icy black depths of the abyss...
3. Will they invite you back?
4. Do you care knowing that you have given them a serious case of the heebie jeebies?



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