Discovered in the deep: the worm that eats bones

TThe deep sea is home to a group of animals that look like tiny plants. They have no mouth, stomach or anus. They live inside a tube with a feathery red plume coming out of one end and a cluster of roots at the other.

Deep-sea scientists first identified them in 2002, growing like a furry carpet on a whale skeleton they found by chance, nearly 10,000 feet deep in Monterey Bay, California. A deep-diving robot pulled up samples that revealed they weren’t plants but bone-eating worms, now officially named. Osedax – the bone eaters in Latin.

The ocean is one of the last truly wild spaces in the world. It’s filled with fascinating species that sometimes seem to border on the absurd, from fish that peer through transparent heads to golden snails in iron armor. We know more about deep space than we do about the deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the deep.

As mining companies push to industrialize the seabed and world leaders continue to debate how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will profile some of the weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, stalwart and mind-blowing creatures recently discovered . They reveal how much there is still to learn about Earth’s lesser-known environment and how much there is to protect.

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What is Discovered in the Deep Series?

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The ocean is one of the last truly wild spaces in the world. It’s filled with fascinating species that sometimes seem to border on the absurd, from fish that peer through transparent heads to golden snails in iron armor. We know more about deep space than we do about the deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the deep.

As mining companies push to industrialize the seabed and world leaders continue to debate how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will profile some of the weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, stalwart and mind-blowing creatures recently discovered . They reveal how much there is still to learn about Earth’s lesser-known environment and how much there is to protect.

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Once scientists knew how to look for them, the search for bone-eating worms, also known as zombie worms, began in earnest. The teams dragged dead whales, stranded on the shore and sunk them in the depths. Landers deliver packages of animal bones to the seabed (pigs, cows, turkeys) and retrieve them months or years later to see what has infested them.

“Basically, wherever we put bones, we find [the worms]” says Greg Rouse of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, and one of the teams who found and described bold.

So far more than 30 species have been found from all over the world. There is the snot flower that eats bones, Osedax mucoflorisfirst found in Sweden. Osedax fenrisi it was discovered near a hydrothermal spring at a depth of more than 2,000 meters in the Arctic, and was named in 2020 after the son of the Norse god Loki, the wolf Fenris.

The bone-eating worm varies in size from the length of a little finger to smaller than an eyelash. Those visible to the naked eye are usually females. Males are mostly small and do not eat bones. They live in “harems” of tens or hundreds inside a female’s mucous tube and wait for their eggs to hatch so they can fertilize them immediately.

All the energy these tiny males get comes from their mothers through their egg yolks. Once they have exhausted this store of energy, they die. “We called them kamikaze males,” says Robert Vrijenhoek, a retired evolutionary biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, who was also part of the original. bold– Find equipment.

The bone-eating mucus flower, Osedax mucofloris, seen in the water with feathery tendrils emerging from its head and a cluster of roots at the other end.
The flower of snot that eats bones, Osedax mucofloris, he is seen in the water with feathery tendrils coming from his head and a cluster of roots at the other end. Photograph: Museum of Natural History/Alamy

a species Osedax priapus, does things differently. Rouse and his colleagues named him after the ancient Greek god of fertility, as depicted in erotic frescoes. These males are similar in size to the females and have a long, extendable trunk that they use to reach through the bone.

“I call it wandering the bones,” says Rouse. When they find females, these males enter sperm stored inside their heads.

Feed, bold etch holes in the bones by producing acid the same way humans produce stomach acid. Paleontologists, in a quest to discover when bold Worms evolved, have found telltale holes drilled into the fossilized bones of a 100-million-year-old plesiosaur, one of the giant marine reptiles that roamed the ocean.

Genetic studies support the theory that bold they have been around since at least the Cretaceous period, long before there were whale skeletons to eat.

Although all the new species have been found, no one has yet located any of them bold larvae It is not clear how the worms find the bones. It is believed that they may drift until they locate a skeleton, perhaps guided by chemicals that wash up in the water.

Studies of bold DNA indicates that these worms live in huge, interconnected populations, possibly making skeletons of whales and other large vertebrates stripped by scavengers. “bold probably just hop, skip and jump all the way across the ocean,” says Vrijenhoek.

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