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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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Animals
20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins
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To celebrate World Penguin Day (which is today, April 25), here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

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6 Myths About Animals, Debunked
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It’s easy to think we understand animals: They’re present in every part of our culture, from the movies we watch to the clichés we use. But the way a species functions in the wild is often worlds apart from a stereotype or cartoon. This gulf between misconceptions and reality is the theme of Lucy Cooke’s new book, The Truth About Animals.

"We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own existence, and that trips us up and obscures the truth,” Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, tells Mental Floss. “I think it's time we rebrand the animal kingdom according to facts and not sentimentality.”

As Cooke examines in her book, the real world is one in which pandas are virile lovers and sloths are master survivalists. These are just a few of the myths that were debunked in The Truth About Animals.

1. PANDAS HAVE LOW SEX DRIVES.

Pandas have long been blamed for their own precarious position in the animal kingdom. The species is in danger, some people claim, because pandas are reluctant to or just plain bad at copulating. If only they would get off their furry behinds and get it on, there would be more of them.

In The Truth About Animals, Cooke debunks this modern myth. Pandas have been living in the wild for 18 million years—long before humans swooped in to act as their savior—and that wouldn’t be the case without healthy sex habits. It’s true that pandas are difficult to breed in captivity, and the several failed attempts of zoos to produce a baby panda throughout the 20th century is likely what led to this stereotype. But the bears are much more responsive to members of the opposite sex in the wild. The female chooses who she mates with, moaning from high in a bamboo tree while several males on the ground compete for her attention. Once the bears have paired off, they can have sex over 40 times in one afternoon.

2. SLOTHS ARE LAZY.

Cooke was inspired to write her book by sloths, which she describes to Mental Floss as “highly successful, highly evolved” creatures. Not everyone agrees: More than perhaps any other animal, sloths have become synonymous with laziness and sluggishness, and today they’re held up as an example of evolutionary failure.

The reality is that sloths are much more impressive than their appearance suggests. They’ve been around since 64 million years ago—earlier than wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers—and they have their slow and steady nature to thank for their success. Sloths have a remarkably slow digestive system and a low-calorie diet, so they expend as little energy as possible, not out of laziness, but out of survival instinct. A sloth is awake for more than half the day, and when necessary it can scramble up a tree at speeds approaching 1 mph. It spends most of its day in a still, seemingly trancelike state, but it isn’t wasting its potential: It’s conserving energy so it can maintain its dominant spot in the evolutionary tree.

3. PENGUINS ARE LOYAL LOVERS.

Emperor penguins, the most famous of the bird group, are known for splitting parenting duties between mated pairs, with the father incubating the egg while the mother gathers food for her family. This has led some to praise penguins as the reflection of ideal, moral family dynamics in the animal kingdom, but these people should probably find a different analog. Though the parents of any given chick may raise their offspring together, penguins aren’t monogamous: 85 percent of emperor penguins find a new partner from one breeding season to the next. Penguins are also some of the only animals known to exchange goods for sex. Adélie penguins need rocks to build up their nests during warmer months when meltwater threatens their eggs. With no parenting duties to distract them, bachelor penguins end up collecting more stones than they need, so some females will sometimes trade a one-off sex session for one of their pebbles.

4. VULTURES STALK DYING PREY.

Watch enough survival movies and you’re bound to see a shot of a hungry vulture trailing behind the starving protagonist, waiting for them to lie down and die. The myth that vultures stalk their prey while it’s still alive and have the power to predict death is a persistent one, but that doesn’t make it accurate. The scavengers have no interest in living animals and will only seek out meat from dead and decaying corpses. Rather than reaper-like premonitions of mortality, turkey vultures and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures use their noses to locate their meals. They join kiwis and kakapos on the small list of birds with highly-developed olfactory glands. Without a strong sense of smell, other New World vultures and all Old World vultures primarily rely on sight to find food. Some New World vultures like black vultures have adopted a different strategy: They'll follow turkey vultures to their prey, taking advantage of their sensitive noses.

5. ALL BATS ARE RABID BLOOD-SUCKERS.

Bats may be the animals most closely associated with the horror genre. They crave blood, so the myth goes, and though a bat latched onto your neck won’t be able to suck you dry, it will likely infect you with a nasty case of rabies.

According to Cooke, there are many problems with the statement above. Bats are poor stand-ins for their fictional vampire counterparts; only three species of bats drink blood—the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat—while most prefer fruit or insects. After climbing onto its prey, the vampire bat locates where the blood is flowing with the heat sensor on its nose, and then, using its sharp front teeth like shears, it cuts away any hair that might be blocking the skin. Rather than biting down and sucking like Dracula, the bat creates a small incision and laps up blood from the open wound. They can recognize an individual animal's breathing patterns and return to feed on it the following night, taking advantage of the reliable blood source.

Bats are rarely rabid, with just .05 percent of them carrying the disease—less than dogs or raccoons. The image of a bat getting tangled in your hair also has no basis in reality: Their sophisticated echolocation system signals them to turn long before they have a chance to collide with your head.

6. FEMALE HYENAS HAVE PENISES.

Hyena genitalia has been baffling scientists for centuries. Member of both sexes appear to have a penis, while in females there’s no external vagina to be found. Scientists originally thought that hyenas must be hermaphrodites, but the true explanation is even more unusual. Though it’s often referred to as a pseudo-penis, female hyena genitalia doesn’t produce sperm, technically making it a nearly 8-inch-long clitoris. This appendage is also saddled with all the same duties as a conventional female organ, including giving birth to hyena pups.

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