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Meet This Bizarre and Mysterious Ribbon Worm

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Gorgonorhynchus repens discharges a sticky proboscis in response to a perceived threat. Rachel Koning, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

If you aren’t one of the 5 million people who’ve watched a 9-second video of a bizarre purple worm vomit a milky living tree all over a random man’s hand (perhaps in Thailand, judging from the YouTube titles), you should be. Watch it now.

(Editor's note: This post references a video that is no longer available. We've updated it with a similar video of a ribbon worm.)

Now that you're up to speed, you’re probably wondering what’s going on here.

To learn more, mental_floss spoke to biologist Sebastian Kvist, associate curator of invertebrates at the Royal Ontario Museum, where he specializes in Nemertea, the phylum of ribbon worms this creature belongs to.

That Milky Goo is Hunting Gear 

The upshot: This animal is weird, rare, and mysterious—even to scientists. The invertebrate is likely from the genus Gorgonorhyncus, which lives in shallow marine waters. That milky goo is actually the worm’s hunting gear: a very rare branching proboscis that this aggressive predator shoots out from a specialized port to net prey, including mollusks, snails, and even other sea worms. It then drags the captured prey into its mouth and swallows it whole.

The worm also throws out its proboscis as a defensive strategy—and that’s what we’re seeing in the video, Kvist says. The worm tries to defend itself by casting out the proboscis, which splatters against the man’s hand. And then the worm starts convulsing. That’s not good. “What we’re seeing is a very stressed worm that’s doing everything it can to try to get away from the situation that it’s in,” Kvist says.

It’s no wonder the worm dislikes the open air. With a soft body only a few millimeters wide, it has a hydrostatic skeleton, which means it relies on the ocean’s water pressure to keep its body in one piece. If you pick up a ribbon worm, its fragile body often simply falls apart. Amazingly, that doesn’t generally kill it. “We’re not sure if it’s able to regenerate or not, but it doesn’t seem to be fatal to the worm to break like that—which is really interesting,” Kvist says. Since the worm in the video seems to be in one piece, it’s possible that if it was returned to the water within 10 minutes—about as long as the ribbon worms Kvist has collected seem to tolerate being out of the water—it could have survived its trip to dry land.

How Old Are They? Good Question. 

What scientists don’t know about Gorgonorhyncus, and ribbon worms in general, turns out to be quite a lot. There are only a handful of species with a branched proboscis, and they don’t seem to be closely related. That suggests this rare anatomical trait arose independently several times. These few Gorgonorhynchus species live in Bermuda, and a cousin genus, Dendrorhynchus, has been spotted in China. None have been found in Thailand.

They’re also scarce. Even in Bermuda, where the marine environment has been extensively researched by scientists, these worms have only been discovered a handful of times.

We have no idea how old ribbon worms are either. Being soft bodied and boneless, ribbon worms leave virtually no trace in the fossil record. “That becomes a very problematic thing for trying to establish how recent or how ancient these guys are,” Kvist admits.

Kvist hopes his own research will help solve some of the mysteries surrounding ribbon worms. One focus is the phylogenetic affinities, or genetic relationships, among the 500 or so Heteronemertea ribbon worms, which have proboscis ports that are separate from their mouths—just like our viral video star Gorgonorhynchus does. Kvist is trying to figure out whether they share a common ancestor.

He’s not the only one studying them. A Harvard-run consortium of nemertean specialists called NemPhyl  are researching the evolution and genetics of these intriguing creatures. And there’s a lot to study. Gorgonorhynchus may be rare, but ribbon worms are found across the globe in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. One is especially notable: Lineus longissimus, which has been measured at more than 30 meters long. “A lot of people think the blue whale is the largest animal in the world,” Kvist says. “Actually, a Nemertean is the longest animal in the world.” 

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15 Must-Watch Facts About The Ring
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DreamWorks

An urban legend about a videotape that kills its viewers seven days after they see it turns out to be true. To her increasing horror, reporter Rachel Keller (then-newcomer Naomi Watts) discovers this after her niece is one of four teenage victims, and is in a race against the clock to uncover the mystery behind the girl in the video before her and her son’s time is up.

Released 15 years ago, on October 18, 2002, The Ring began a trend of both remaking Japanese horror films in a big way, and giving you nightmares about creepy creatures crawling out of your television. Here are some facts about the film that you can feel free to pass along to anybody, guilt-free.

1. DREAMWORKS BOUGHT THE AMERICAN RIGHTS TO RINGU FOR $1 MILLION.

There were conflicting stories over how executive producer Roy Lee came to see the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, Hideo Nakata's adaptation of the 1991 novel Ring by Kôji Suzuki. Lee said two different friends gave him a copy of Ringu in January 2001, which he loved and immediately gave to DreamWorks executive Mark Sourian, who agreed to purchase the rights. But Lee’s close friend Mike Macari worked at Fine Line Features, which had an American remake of Ringu in development before January 2001. Macari said he showed Lee Ringu much earlier. Macari and Lee were both listed as executive producers for The Ring.

2. THE DIRECTOR FIRST SAW RINGU ON A POOR QUALITY VHS TAPE, WHICH ADDED TO ITS CREEPINESS.

Gore Verbinski had previously directed MouseHunt. He said the first time he "watched the original Ringu was on a VHS tape that was probably seven generations down. It was really poor quality, but actually that added to the mystique, especially when I realized that this was a movie about a videotape." Naomi Watts struggled to find a VHS copy of Ringu while shooting in the south of Wales. When she finally got a hold of one she watched it on a very small TV alone in her hotel room. "I remember being pretty freaked out," Watts said. "I just saw it the once, and that was enough to get me excited about doing it."

3. THE RING AND RINGU ARE ABOUT 50 PERCENT DIFFERENT.

Naomi Watts in 'The Ring'
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

Verbinski estimated that, for the American version, they "changed up to 50 percent of it. The basic premise is intact, the story is intact, the ghost story, the story of Samara, the child." Storylines involving the characters having ESP, a volcano, “dream logic,” and references to “brine and goblins” were taken out.

4. IT RAINED ALMOST EVERY DAY WHEN THEY FILMED IN THE STATE OF WASHINGTON.

The weather added to the “atmosphere of dread,” according to the film's production notes. Verbinski said the setting allowed them to create an “overcast mood” of dampness and isolation.

5. THE PRODUCTION DESIGNER WAS INFLUENCED BY ANDREW WYETH.

Artist Andrew Wyeth tended to use muted, somber earth tones in his work. "In Wyeth's work, the trees are always dormant, and the colors are muted earth tones," explained production designer Tom Duffield. "It's greys, it's browns, it's somber colors; it's ripped fabrics in the windows. His work has a haunting flavor that I felt would add to the mystique of this movie, so I latched on to it."

6. THERE WERE RINGS EVERYWHERE.

The carpeting and wallpaper patterns, the circular kitchen knobs, the doctor’s sweater design, Rachel’s apartment number, and more were purposely designed with the film's title in mind.

7. WATTS AND MARTIN HENDERSON HAD A FRIENDLY INTERNATIONAL RIVALRY.

Martin Henderson and Naomi Watts star in 'The Ring' (1992)
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

The New Zealand-born Henderson played Noah, Rachel’s ex-husband. Since Watts is from Australia, Henderson said that, "Between takes, we'd joke around with each other's accents and play into the whole New Zealand-Australia rivalry."

8. THE TWO WEREN’T SURE IF THE MOVIE WAS GOING TO BE SCARY ENOUGH.

After shooting some of the scenes, and not having the benefit of seeing what they'd look like once any special effects were added, Henderson and Watts worried that the final result would not be scary enough. "There were moments when Naomi and I would look at each other and say, 'This is embarrassing, people are going to laugh,'" Henderson told the BBC." You just hope that somebody makes it scary or you're going to look like an idiot!"

9. CHRIS COOPER WAS CUT FROM THE MOVIE.

Cooper played a child murderer in two scenes which were initially meant to bookend the film. He unconvincingly claimed to Rachel that he found God in the beginning, and in the end she gave him the cursed tape. Audiences at test screenings were distracted that an actor they recognized disappears for most of the film, so he was cut out entirely.

10. THEY TRIED TO GET RID OF ALL OF THE SHADOWS.

Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli used the lack of sunlight in Washington to remove the characters’ shadows. The two wanted to keep the characters feeling as if “they’re floating a little bit, in space.”

11. THE TREE WAS NICKNAMED "LUCILLE."

The red Japanese maple tree in the cursed video was named after the famous redheaded actress Lucille Ball. The tree was fake, built out of steel tubing and plaster. The Washington wind blew it over three different times. The night they put up the tree in Los Angeles, the wind blew at 60 miles per hour and knocked Lucille over yet again. "It was very strange," said Duffield.

12. MOESKO ISLAND IS A FUNCTIONING LIGHTHOUSE.

Moesko Island Lighthouse is Yaquina Head Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Yaquina River, a mile west of Agate Beach, Oregon. The website Rachel checks, MoeskoIslandLighthouse.com, used to actually exist as a one-page website, which gave general information on the fictional place. You can read it here.

13. A WEBSITE WAS CREATED BY DREAMWORKS TO PROMOTE THE MOVIE AND ADD TO ITS MYTHOLOGY.

Before and during the theatrical release, if you logged into AnOpenLetter.com, you could read a message in white lettering against a black background warning about what happens if you watch the cursed video (you can read it here). By November 24, 2002, it was a standard official website made for the movie, set up by DreamWorks.

14. VERBINSKI DIDN’T HAVE FUN DIRECTING THE MOVIE.

“It’s no fun making a horror film," admitted Verbinski. "You get into some darker areas of the brain and after a while everything becomes a bit depressing.”

15. DAVEIGH CHASE SCARED HERSELF.

Daveigh Chase in 'The Ring'
© 2002 - DreamWorks LLC - All Rights Reserved

When Daveigh Chase, who played Samara, saw The Ring in theaters, she had to cover her eyes out of fear—of herself. Some people she met after the movie came out were also afraid of her.

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European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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