Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Boneworms: Eyeless, Mouthless Oddities in Monterey Bay

"A motley collection of boneworms"
MBARI News Release (November 10, 2009)

"It sounds like a classic horror story—eyeless, mouthless worms lurk in the dark, settling onto dead animals and sending out green "roots" to devour their bones. In fact, such worms do exist in the deep sea. They were first discovered in 2002 by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), who were using a robot submarine to explore Monterey Canyon. But that wasn't the end of the story. After 'planting' several dead whales on the seafloor, a team of biologists recently announced that as many as 15 different species of boneworms may live in Monterey Bay alone."

Depending on how fast boneworm DNA mutates, this sort of creature may have emerged 45,000,000 years ago, around the time that the first large whales swam the open ocean. Or, boneworms may go back 130,000,000 years: when they could have lived on bones of large oceanic contemporaries of the dinosaurs.

Boneworms don't have the cute and cuddly appeal of koalas, or even weasels. But I think they're another fascinating example of how creatures live and grow: in this case, in very unfamiliar ways.


"Strange Worms Discovered Eating Dead Whales"
LiveScience (November 17, 2009)

"Some truly strange creatures can be found on the ocean seafloor, and boneworms are among the most bizarre — they have no eyes or mouth and feast on the bones of dead whale carcasses.

"Now scientists have identified even more species of this recently discovered worm, and their analysis reveals additional clues to when the creatures first evolved.

"Boneworms, belonging to the genus Osedax, were first discovered back in 2002 off the coast of California in an underwater valley called the Monterey Canyon. Since then, the researchers that made the find have been uncovering details about the life cycle and eating habits of these worms. ..."

They're animals: a kind of worm, apparently. But in their adult form they look - and act - like tiny trees, with 'roots' that (presumably) take in nutrients with the help of bacteria, and 'branches' that take in oxygen. Also, by the time they're trees, boneworms are all female. The larvae are male - and stay that way if they land on a female.

Boneworms have a life cycle that isn't very much like that of animals we're more familiar with, like dogs and cockroaches.

We've only known about these oceanic oddities for about seven years, so I expect that there will be fewer 'presumablies' in a few more years. Like how many species there are. The first estimate was five species. Then, according to the LiveScience article, researchers started analyzing boneworm DNA and found that there were 12 species. The MBARI press release said "as many as 15 different species of boneworms may live in Monterey Bay alone." - So my guess is that there are a whole lot more that haven't been found and cataloged yet. Particularly since boneworms have been found off Japan, across the Pacific from Monterey Bay, and Sweden, in the northeast Atlantic Ocean.

Most (known) boneworm adults live on the surface of bones, but at least one species lives on the seafloor, near whale bones.

(from MBARI, used w/o permission)
"These unusual boneworms live in seafloor sediment and send roots into the sediment, presumably to digest fragments of bone. Image: © 2005 MBARI"

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