5 Awesome (and Occasionally Terrifying) Marine Worms

When most of us think of worms, we think of the earthworm; and though there are many species of the dirt-dwelling creatures, most look pretty similar, says Dr. Mark Siddall, Curator of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. But the marine annelids known as polychaete worms, which have bristles made of chitin, are an entirely different story. “There’s an enormous, terrifically huge diversity of those kinds of worms,” Siddall says. Here are a few superlatives from the class’s 10,000 species.

1. Bobbit Worms (Eunice aphroditois)

This nightmare-inducing creature’s colloquial name may have been inspired by Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who infamously cut off her husband’s penis in 1993, and it’s not hard to see why. The iridescent worm buries its body—which can grow up to 10 feet long, making it one of the longest polychaetes in the world—in the sea floor, but leaves its head, with five sensory antennae and an open set of truly terrifying jaws, exposed. There it waits patiently for prey to wander by. When that unfortunate prey gets too close, the antennae sense it, and the jaws snap closed, sometimes with enough force to slice a fish in half.

Successfully snagged prey is then dragged back into the worm’s burrow, but not much is known about what happens after that. Luis F. Carrera-Parra and Sergio I. Salazar-Vallejo, who study annelid polychaetes at Mexico’s El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, told WIRED, “We think that the eunicid injects some narcotizing or killing toxin in their prey animal, such that it can be safely ingested—especially if they are larger than the worm—and then digested through the gut.”

According to Scientific American, these guys can inflict a pretty nasty bite—but because they hang out in the ocean floor wherever it’s warm, between depths of 32 and 131 feet, you’re not likely to encounter one anytime soon. Unless, of course, you work in an aquarium. Matt Slater, curator at Newquay's Blue Reef Aquarium in Cornwall, England, said that when they discovered a 4-foot-long bobbit worm in their tank, they also discovered that the creature was “covered with thousands of bristles which are capable of inflicting a sting resulting in permanent numbness,” he told the Daily Mail.

And, while their name might suggest otherwise, females don’t slice the penises off of males. “[These worms] don’t have penises,” Siddall says. “They’re broadcast spawners,” animals that release sperms and eggs into the water at the same time, letting nature take its course from there.

2. Bloodworms (Genus Glycera)

Marine fishermen might not be so likely to use these annelids for bait if they knew what the worm can use to bite back: Bloodworms have a large proboscis equipped with four hollow pincers that are made out of a form of crystallized copper called atacamite. “The only other place you find [it] is in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where it’s formed by volcanoes,” Siddall says. “In order to be able to produce those fangs, it has to be able to withstand an enormous concentration of copper in its body, which can be toxic to other organisms.”

Though scientists aren’t exactly sure why the worms have copper pinchers, some, according to Siddall, believe that the copper activates the creature’s venom. “They’ve got venom glands at the base of each of these fangs and they’ll grab onto prey and envenomate it,” he says. And as you might imagine, getting bitten by a bloodworm isn’t pleasant—which Siddall knows from experience. “When the proboscis comes out, it spreads the four fangs,” he says. “When they draw the proboscis in, those four fangs close on the spot. It’s like a grappling hook. It hurts like hell.”

3. Palolo Worms (Palola viridis)

These 12-inch-long annelids, native to the South Pacific, use their jaws to burrow into coral. They spend their lives with their heads, called atokes, in the coral reefs, while the tail ends of their bodies, or epitokes, hang out—which might seem weird, but it’s pretty important during their annual mating season, which occurs in October or November.

Over the course of the year, the worm grows segments called epitokes, which eventually degenerate until they become, according to National Geographic, “little more than sacks engorged with either sperm or eggs,” which break off in conjunction with the phase of the full moon and spiral up to the surface. (According to the Natural History Guide to Samoa, “Each epitoke segments bear a tiny eyespot that can sense light” [PDF].) There, they dissolve and release their cargo in a swarming, mucousy mass. The whole process takes just a few hours, and festivals revolve around it. “People go out and gather them up in buckets and fry them up for food,” Siddall says.

What happens to the atoke section of the worm in the reef? It heals its abdomen—the process takes about a week—and then begins generating new epitokes for the next mating season.

4. Christmas Tree Worms (Spirobranchus giganteus)

As their name might suggest, these worms resemble multi-colored Christmas trees—but that’s not the actual worm itself. “The worms are buried in the coral,” Siddall says. “What you’re seeing is the worm’s filter feeding [and breathing] apparatus.” The apparatus is made of two spiraled plumes, complete with feather-like appendages called radioles, that span 1 to 1.5 inches [PDF]. In the center is a cover, or operculum; when the worm is startled, it pulls its plumes inside its tube and plugs the entrance with the operculum for protection. The worms, which live in tropical environments at depths between 10 and 100 feet, feed on phytoplankton in the water, using the hair-like cilia on the radioles to capture the animals and work them down to the worm’s mouth. One study suggests they may live for at least a decade, and potentially as long as 40 years.

5. Bermuda Glow Worm (Odontosyllis enopla)

Like the Palolo worm, these annelids come out in a swarm to mate in phases with the full moon. Unlike Palolo worms, they glow while they’re doing it. “After sunset on the fifth day after the fullest of the full moons, the females will come up to the surface,” Siddall says. “They’ll swim really fast in tight circles, and they’re [bioluminescing] a very bright blue. They look like little stars in the water.” This bright swarm attracts the males, who shoot up from the depths, also bioluminescing. “They come up really, really fast, like comets, jetting up to where the females are,” Siddall says. “When they get there, they dump their sperm in the water, and the females dump their eggs in the water, and that’s how they get the job done.” These worms are small: At about 1.4 inches, the females are twice as long as the males [PDF].

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IKEA
IKEA Is Recalling Its New Dog Water Fountain Due to Suffocation Risk
IKEA
IKEA

In late 2017, IKEA released LURVIG, its first-ever line for pets, a collection that included beds, leashes, food bowls, and other staple products for dogs and cats. Unfortunately, one of those products is now being recalled over safety issues, according to Fast Company. If you own the LURVIG water dispenser, you should take it away from your pet immediately.

The automatic water fountain poses a suffocation hazard, the company announced in a recent statement. The retailer has received two reports of pets dying after getting their head stuck in it.

A water fountain for pets sits next to a bowl full of dog food.
IKEA

The $8 water dispenser debuted in U.S. stores in October 2017 with the rest of its LURVIG line. Awkwardly enough, the product description included assurances of the product’s safety standards. It explained that “the LURVIG range was developed with the assistance of trained veterinarian Dr. Barbara Schäfer, who also works with product risk assessment at IKEA,” and went on to say that “the first thing to consider was safety: ‘Dogs will definitely chew on their toys and bring in dirt from their daily walks. Cats will definitely scratch on most surfaces and are sensitive to smell and texture. So safe, durable materials are very important.’”

It seems that smaller dogs are able to get their faces stuck in the dome-shaped plastic reservoir, which only appears to have one hole in it, at the bottom. As a result, dogs can suffocate if they can’t get out of it.

The product has been removed from IKEA’s website, and the retailer recommends that anyone who bought it stop using it and return it to the nearest IKEA store for a refund.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Alamy
10 Facts About the Portuguese Man O' War
Alamy
Alamy

Something a lot scarier than any Jersey Devil has been washing up on beaches in the Garden State lately: This month, the dangerous Portuguese Man O’ War—which has a potentially deadly sting—has been sighted in Cape May and Wildwood, New Jersey, which could lead to problems for beachgoers. Read on to learn more about these unusual creatures.

1. IT'S NOT A JELLYFISH.

The Portuguese Man o’ War may look like a bloated jellyfish, but it’s actually a siphonophore—a bizarre group of animals that consist of colonies made up of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of genetically-identical individual creatures. A siphonophore starts out as a fertilized egg. But as it develops, it starts "budding" into distinct structures and organisms. These tiny organisms—called polyps or zooids—can’t survive on their own, so they merge together into a tentacled mass. They must cooperate as one in order to do things like travel and catch food.

Though the zooids within a Man O’ War are basically clones, they come in different shapes and serve different purposes [PDF]. Dactylozooids are long hunting tentacles built to ensnare prey; gastrozooids are smaller tentacles which digest the food; and gonozooids are dangling entities whose job is to facilitate reproduction. Every Man O’ War also has a pneumatophore, or “float”—an overgrown, bag-like polyp which acts as a giant gas bladder and sits at the top of the colony. Capable of expanding or contracting at will, it provides the Man O’ War with some buoyancy control. An expanded float also enables the colony to harness winds to move around.

2. A CLOSE RELATIVE IS THE INDO-PACIFIC “BLUEBOTTLE.”

A view of a bluebottle under water.
iStock

When we say “Portuguese Man O’ War,” we’re talking about Physalia physalis, the bizarre siphonophore that’s scaring New Jerseyans right now. Also known as the Atlantic Portuguese Man O’ War, it can be found in warmer parts of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and of course, the Atlantic.

Another kind of siphonophore which regularly stings beachgoers is the so-called bluebottle, Physalia utriculus. It’s sometimes called the Indo-Pacific “Portuguese” Man O’ War and is restricted to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It’s smaller than the Atlantic species and unlike its bigger counterpart—which has multiple hunting tentacles—it hunts with a single, elongated tentacle.

3. THE NAME “PORTUGUESE MAN O’ WAR” IS PROBABLY A NAVAL REFERENCE.

In the age of sailing, many European navies used tall warships loaded with cannons and propelled by three masts. British sailors took to calling this kind of vessel a “Man of War.”

What does that have to do with Physalia physalias? These colonies spend a lot of time floating at the water’s surface, and when the gas bladder is expanded, it looks—and acts—a bit like a sailboat, hence the “Man O’ War.” As for the Portuguese part, 19th century scientists proposed that sailors encountered it near the Portuguese island of Madeira, while modern etymologists tend to think that it looked like the Portuguese version of the ship.

Or at least that’s one explanation for the creature’s peculiar name. It’s also been suggested that Renaissance-era sailors thought the pneumatophores resembled the helmets worn by Portugal’s soldiers during the 16th century.

4. MAN O’ WAR TENTACLES CAN BE UP TO 165 FEET LONG.

Two Portuguese Man o' War washed up on the beach with their tentacles stretched out.
iStock

At least, that’s the maximum length for the dactylozooids—which are normally around 30 feet long and use venom-spewing cells to deliver painful, neurotoxic stings. When a tentacle is detached from the rest of the colony, it might wash ashore somewhere or drift around for days on end until it decomposes. Be warned: Even a severed tentacle can sting you.

5. ON RARE OCCASIONS, STINGS CAN BE FATAL TO HUMANS.

The odds of being killed by a Portuguese Man O’ War are slim. But just because deaths are rare doesn't mean you should touch one: On February 11, 2018, 204 people in Hollywood, Florida were treated for stings, which can lead to red welts on the skin, muscle cramps, elevated heart rates, and vomiting.

Still, the creatures can kill: One unlucky victim suffered a full cardiovascular collapse and died after getting too close to a Man O’ War in eastern Florida back in 1987. More recently, a woman swimming off Sardinia was stung by one and died of what was believed to be anaphylactic shock.

6. SOME FISH LIVE IN THEM.

Given that tiny fish make up about 70 to 90 percent of the Man O’ War’s diet (it also eats shrimp and other crustaceans), Nomeus gronovii, a.k.a. the Portuguese Man O’ War Fish, is playing a dangerous game: It lives among the siphonophore's tentacles even though it's not immune to its stings, swimming nimbly between the stingers. Young fish eat planktons which wander under their hosts and, as they get older, will sometimes steal the Man O’ War’s prey—or nibble on its tentacles.

7. SEA SLUGS LIKE TO STEAL THEIR TOXINS.

The Man O’ War has a long list of enemies. Loggerhead sea turtles and the bizarre-looking ocean sunfish are thick-skinned enough to eat them. There are also “blue dragon” sea slugs, which not only devour the Man O’ War but actively harvest and appropriate its toxins. After storing Man O’ War stinging cells in their own skins, the blue dragons can use it as a predator deterrent.

8. MAN O’ WAR COME IN PRETTY COLORS.

A pink-tinted Portuguese Man O' War with blue tentacles in the surf at a beach.
iStock

Although it’s translucent, the float is usually tinted with blue, pink, and/or purple hues. Beaches along the American Gulf Coast raise purple flags in order to let visitors know when groups of Man O’ War (or other potentially deadly sea creatures) are at large.

9. EVERY COLONY HAS A SPECIFIC SEX.

The Man O' War's gonozooids have sacs that house ovaries or testes—so each colony can therefore be considered “male” or “female.” Though marine biologists aren’t completely sure how the Man O’ War procreates, one theory is that the gonozooids release eggs and sperm into the open ocean, which become fertilized when they cross paths with floating eggs or sperm from other Man O’ War colonies. This “broadcast spawning” method of reproduction is also used by many species of coral, fan worms, sea anemone, and jellyfish.

10. LOOK OUT FOR MAN O’ WAR LEGIONS.

The Man O’ War isn't always seen in isolation. Legions consisting of over 1000 colonies have been observed floating around together. Because they drift along on (somewhat) predictable winds and ocean currents, it’s possible to anticipate where and when a lot of the creatures will show up. For example, the Gulf Coast’s Man O’ War season arrives in the winter months.

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