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New pictures of boneworms

By James G. Robertson

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has new pictures of the worms we wrote about in September, and the number of species identified by scientists has increased from nine to as many as 17.

The researchers have also published some insight into how the worms get food from the bones of dead animals, and how the worms reproduce.  But how they find their food is still a mystery, and will be an area of future research.

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Photo: Female bone worm. Image credit: © 2008 Greg Rouse

The worms grow complex root systems into the bones they find on the seafloor, and bacteria within the roots digest proteins and lipids to feed the worms.  The feathery “palps” that wave around in the water are used to get oxygen.  Although we previously reported they only eat whale bones, the researchers have found the worms will also feed from cow bones.

Even more bizarre than their choice of food is the worms’ life cycle.  Each worm starts as a microscopic larva, and develops once it finds a bone to land on.  The larvae that colonize the bones all develop into females, while some of the microscopic larvae that don’t land never grow and develop into males.  The microscopic males land on the females’ “palps,” make their way to the females’ body tube, and fertilize thousands of eggs, which starts the process over again.

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Photo: A microscopic female boneworm.  Image credit: © 2009 Greg Rouse

You can watch a video of the bone worms in the wild, narrated by Robert Vrijenhoek, one of the researchers, below:

All images and video courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.