Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts from the ‘Marine worms’ category

Worms That Bite Anemones?!

Okay, this is a true mystery.

I have relayed my observations to marine worm researchers but want to share with you too. It’s just too fascinating not to do so. These finds emphasize yet again how little we know even about marine species that are just below the surface. I also hope that by sharing my observations here, it may lead to other divers being on the lookout for these interactions and potentially adding to the knowledge about interactions between necklace-worms and anemones.

Necklace-worm species #1 and Proliferating Anemone – January 1st, 2008.
Necklace-worm species #2 and Short Plumose Anemones – March 6, 2022.

My observations involve what I believe are two species of necklace-worm. Each is interacting with a different species of anemone. In both cases, the species of necklace-worm is unconfirmed. The polychaete* researchers I have been in contact with have asked for samples of the worms to allow for microscopic examination and potential DNA analysis.

*Polychaetes are the “many-bristled” worms. They are worms that have a pair of paddle-like appendages / bristles on each segment. Most species of worm in this class are found in the ocean or in brackish water and there are about 15,000 known species globally. Polychaetes “are ubiquitous in the ocean, burrowing and hunting in the sand, crawling on algal covered rocks, living in self-made tubes, or swimming in the water” (Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, 2013).

Note that observations and photos here are from the Pearse Islands and Plumper Islands on northeast Vancouver Island in the territory of the Kwakwaka’wakw in depths less than 17 metres / 50 feet.


Necklace-Worm Species #1 and Proliferating Anemones:
I have written about this previously but include the observations here again so that the information about these necklace-worm / anemone interactions is bundled in one place. It involves a species of necklace worm appearing to bite into Proliferating Anemones (Epiactis prolifera to 8 cm wide).

My first observation of this interaction goes back all the way to 2008 when I documented the following thanks to the keen eye of my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson.

Both photos: Necklace-worm species #1 appears to be biting into a Proliferating Anemone – January 1st, 2008.

I do not know if the necklace-worm dislodged the anemone of if the anemone let go in an attempt to get away. We came upon this scene when the anemone was already upside down.

I have only noted this interaction twice since then. See photos below.

Necklace-worm species #1 and Proliferating Anemone – February 15, 2015. Note the “casings” the worms are in on the left.
Necklace-worm species #1 on the right and Proliferating Anemones – February 22, 2020. [Yes, on the left, those are babies of multiple ages hanging onto their mother. More about that at this link.]

For those who have Lamb and Hanby’s Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, you may note that this species of necklace-worm looks like AN22 which is referenced as a “mystery necklace-worm”. But again, collection of a sample would be needed to confirm species ID.


Necklace-Worm Species #2 and Short Plumose Anemones:

On February 12, 2022 I saw THIS.

Necklace-worm species #2, Short Plumose Anemones AND the spaces where these anemones used to be. Many of these anemones are retracted. Photo February 12, 2022.

There are necklace-worms in those slime tubes! Where you see the circles is where other Short Plumose Anemones once were (Metridium senile to 10 cm tall and 4 cm across).

Close-up showing the necklace-worms. Photo February 12, 2022.

Were they always at this site? I have done a quick review of past photos and see a few of them in photos back to 2013. Variables in why I may not have noticed them before are that: (1) they were much more apparent as a result of the dislodged anemones; (2) there may be more of them now; and (3) we usually don’t focus on the spot where the concentration of these worms were (we usually dive deeper).

Here’s another photo from that dive to give a better sense of the size of the worms. That Blood Star is about 15 cm long. Photo February 12, 2022.

So TODAY’S mission was to return to this dive site and focus on the interaction between this species of necklace-worm and Short Plumose Anemones. How abundant are they? Are they biting the anemones?Are the worms anywhere other than around Short Plumose Anemones? Are the anemones using their acontia as a defense against the worms? Acontia are defensive strands filled with stinging cells (nematocysts) that are ejected when an anemone is irritated / threatened / stressed. The acontia can extend far beyond the anemone, providing longer distance defense than the stinging cells in an anemones tentacles.

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson today. This is the exact same spot as what you see in the images from February 12th above. I contrast the two photos at the very end of this blog so you can see how things have changed after 22 days. Of course I do not know how much the anemones would move around in the absence of the worms.


To answer those questions:
– I found the slime tubes almost everywhere there were Short Plumose Anemones at this site. I did not find them anywhere else i.e. this species of necklace-worm’s slime tubes were only around Short Plumose Anemones.
– I only found a few Short Plumose Anemones using their acontia but it seems more likely that they were being used against other anemones. I cannot know if the anemones dislodge themselves as a defense. There were only a few places where there were the circles of slime tubes where an anemone had once been. There were far more places where the slime tubes were in amongst Short Plumose Anemones.
– YES I do believe this species of necklace-worm is biting into the Short Plumose Anemones. See below for abundant photos from today.

Some Short Plumose Anemones using their acontia. See those little white strands?


I will of course provide updates as I learn more via the researchers and other divers / underwater photographers. As always, I hope it is a source of wonder for you to learn more about these species, their adaptations and interactions, AND how much we humans still have to learn about the natural world around us. 🙂


All photos below are from March 6, 2022.

Taking a bite? Also looks like this anemone is about to undergo “pedal laceration” to reproduce asexually.
Here too it looks like some of the anemones are in the process of pedal laceration = form of asexual reproduction.

Below, you can contrast the same spot after 22 days. There has been a lot of change but again, I do not know how much the anemones would move around and/or dislodge in the absence of the worms. Oh no, is this now going to be my life? In addition to trying to document individual Humpback Wales and Tiger Rockfish, now I am going to try to document individual Short Plumose Anemones?! Probably.

Preoccupied with Parasites

Preoccupied with parasites!

That’s not usually a good conversation starter is it?

But, read on. It’s worth it! If you are fascinated by adaptations and the interconnectedness of species . . . even when it involves parasites.

These are Transparent Tunicates (aka Transparent Sea Squirts). They are not parasites. They are highly evolved animals with a primitive backbone. They take in food particles through one siphon in their strong “tunic” and expel waste through the other siphon. See the siphons?

 

The dark you see here is the waste inside their rectums. Yep, they are filter feeders and clearly take in some sand too. What’s this then about parasites?

This species gets invaded by a wicked parasite (as opposed to all those gentle and meek parasites out there) . . . the Spotted Flatworm! This species of flatworm curls up, sneaks in through the tunicate’s branchial siphon, unrolls, eats the tunicate’s internal organs over 3 to 7 days and then moves on, leaving behind the empty tunic.

They are species specific parasites, apparently specializing in invading Transparent Tunicates. The following photos clearly show you the Spotted Flatworm presence there and the tunicates are now mere shells of their former selves.

All the internal organs are gone in the heavily invested individual in the photo below.

 

In having the privilege of learning even from individual animals by diving the same areas frequently. I recently saw the progression for individual Transparent Tunicates and the Spotted Flatworms that had invested them. The following photo is from March 1st, 2020. I’ve now added arrows to show the parasites.

The following two photos show you reality  24 days later. The originally invested Transparent Tunicates are dead and the Spotted Flatworms have moved into their neighbours.

Below is another perspective on the same individuals.

 

I truly hope that in these times where our own species is facing extreme challenges, that this information still creates awe, connection and respect for the lives of others. Maybe it’s more important than ever.

Wishing you health, resilience, and strength of community.

Transparent Tunicate = Corella willmeriana to 7.5 cm.
Spotted Flatworm = Eurylepta leoparda to 2.5 m.

Mystery Worm

The species of necklace-worm in the following two photos has, to my knowledge, not yet been identified by science. My latest sighting of it was yesterday.

I am sharing the images to illuminate anew how little we know even of species in the shallows.

I have only documented this species 3 times and in each case it has been in less than 8 metres / 25 feet  of water. Interestingly, it was near Proliferating Anemones in each case which makes me wonder if the might prey on them. I am perplexed too by the slime encasements evident in the second photo.

I believe it has also only been documented around the Plumper Islands area off NE Vancouver Island.

I have relayed the observations to polychaete worm experts.

 

To be clear, I did not discover the species. 

I have only found individuals of this necklace-worm that has previously been recognized by experts as being an unidentified species.

In Andy Lamb and Bernie Hanby’s “Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest”, it is species AN22. They state: “While diving the Plumper Islands near Port McNeill, BC, we found this mystery necklace-worm. Significant numbers of this small (5 cm / 2 in long) creature were crawling about in the open, completely exposed. Such behaviour would seem to invite predation. Unfortunately, without a specimen . . . accurate identification is not possible. Detailed examination of the palps, teeth, cirri (finger-like projections) and chaetae (bristles) are required for species determination . . . It looks diminutive, but this mysterious worm is actually large compared to most necklace-worms.” Further from their update on KnowBC; “Some interesting observations can be made, however. The tentacular cirri near the head are much longer than their dorsal counterparts in the middle of the body: the latter appear to be shorter than the worm’s body width. It is not clear, though, whether these cirri are annulated (ringed) or smooth. The specimen’s eyes are evident as are some sensory organs located just behind them. Intriguing features are the two faint but obvious transverse structures on each segment that appear to be ciliated (hairy).”

Oh and because truth, humility and self-mockery are virtues I try to stand for, know that I had no idea I had photographed the species yesterday. I only saw it when I was processing my photos of the Proliferating Anemones. There are good reasons I dive with a magnifying glass.

 

Below, please find photos of just a few of the other species of marine worm that I have photographed around NE Vancouver Island.

I am sharing these to add to the wonder of worms found in the NE Pacific Ocean.


#1 Windmill Bamboo Worm
Praxillura maculata to 25 cm long.

This species makes 6 to 12 “vanes”/spokes at the end of its protective tube and then strings a web-like net of mucus between to capture bits of food. After a time, the worm comes OUT of its tube and eats the mucus and food! Yep, it seines for its dinner! See this link for photos by Ronald Schmek of the worm coming out of its tube to harvest dinner.


#2 Basket-Top Spaghetti-Worm
Pista elongata to 21 cm long

The Basket-Top Spaghetti-Worm builds a tube AND A BASKET from bits of debris and extends its tentacles through the basket to feed. So little is known about it.

From Lamb and Hanby: “The lower part of the tube, where the worm resides, is coated with shell fragments and pebbles. Is the purpose of this extravagant tube solely to camouflage and protect the worm . . . or to increase its access to food? The worm extends its long tentacles through the basket to gather food particles selectively . . . The basket-top may also function as a sieve, filtering out particles brought by currents. Elevating the tube above the rocky substrate may provide the elongate, and tree-like branchia (gills), hidden in the basket, with a good supply of oxygenated water.”


#3 Calcarious Tubeworms 

There are a variety of Calcareous Tubeworms species in the NE Pacific Ocean. I believe those in the following photos are “Red-Trumpet Calcareous Tubeworms” (Serpula coumbiana to 6.5 cm long).  You’ve probably deduced that with that large surface area, they dust for plankton snacks with their crowns. These structures also allow the animals to respire.

See the trumpet-like structures (which need not be red as the common name suggests)? That is the “operculum”. It functions like a door that pulls closed after the tubeworm retracts. Thereby the worm is further protected in its hard, shell-like tube of a home

I am always thrilled when I succeed in photographing this species since, with any disturbance, the crown Immediately retracts as of result of they eye spots detecting the change in light / shadow.


#4 Jointed Three-Section Tubeworm
Spiochaetopterus costarum to 48 cm long

Jointed Three-Section Tubworms are filter feeders that create mucus bags inside their bodies through which water is passed due to the beating of cilia. As the water passes through the mucus, plankton and detritus particles are sieved out. The long polyps you see in my first photo below, remove the pellets and keep the opening of the worm clear. Notice how thin the worm is and therefore how spacious the tube it has constructed? The second photo shows you what the pellets look like. 

The nudibranch species in the first images is an Opalescent Nudibranch which is likely feeding on a species of hydroid on the outside of the worm’s tube.

The nudibranch species in the third and fourth photo is Himatina trophina which not only feeds on hydroids on the outside of the tube but also, as you can see, lays its egg ribbons there.


#5 Slime-Tube Feather Duster Worms
Myxicola infundibulum to 9 cm long

This species can also detect shadow and retreat into their mucus homes with lightning speed. All you then see is the jiggly jello-like top of their tubes. (Yes, it took me a long time to get a photo of them!) Where other marine tube-worms make a parchment or shell-like tube, worms of the Myxicola genus secrete themselves a mucus home. “Myxicola” in fact translates into “living in slime” so don’t name your child that . They suspension feed on plankton and other bits of organic bits with their funnel-like crowns ( = “radioles”).


#6 Feather Duster Tube-Worms

It is very easy to see why these are known as “feather duster” worms.  Their crowns have huge surface area to “dust” the ocean for food. They live in parchment tubes and feed on plankton with their bushy crowns.

The banded blue and purple ones with the thicker tubes are the Vancouver Feather-Duster (Eudistylia vancouveri to 25 cm long). The pink, grey and tan ones are Split-Branch Feather-Dusters (Schizobranchia insignis to 15.8 cm long). 

Vancouver Feather-Duster and Split-Branch Feather-Dusters. See the nudibranch egg mass under the biggest Plumose Anemone? Those are from a Monterey Dorid.

 

Split-Branch Feather-Dusters (Schizobranchia insignis to 15.8 cm long). 

 

Vancouver Feather-Duster (Eudistylia vancouveri to 25 cm long).


#7 Sea Nymphs / Nereidae Worms

There are more than 20 species of nereida worms in the NE Pacific Ocean and the one that I am asked about most often is the “Giant Pile Worm” (Alitta brandti). It is indeed giant at up to 1.5 long and causes wonder and confusion; even getting misidentified as being an eel instead of a worm.

The video below shows a male spawning at the surface.

 

Wonder Worm

January 9th, 2011

While diving in the Plumper Island Group near Telegraph Cove, British Columbia, I chanced upon a white-ringed ribbon worm (Tubulanus albocinctus) fully out in the open. This is the first time I have been able to see the whole animal and marvelled at it’s length and colour. This “specimen” that I filmed was more than 1 metre long.  Apparently, they can reach 6 metres in length!

White-ringed ribbon worm found at about 30' (10m). Photo: Hildering

 

Ribbon worms have unsegmented bodies but what sets them apart from all other worm species is that they have a “proboscis”. The proboscis is a part of their gut that can be launched out to wrap around prey and then retract pulling the prey into the ribbon worm’s mouth.  Venom may also be associated with the proboscis. The white-ringed ribbon worm may prey on segmented worms, small crustaceans and maybe even some small fish. The proboscis can also be used for digging.

In the video clip (link below) you will see how the animal moves with powerful waves of muscular contraction (peristalsis). Small hairs called cilia also help it glide along.

In trying to find some basic facts about this species’ natural history, I discovered that very little is known about it even though it quite common in the Pacific Northeast. Although not able to find research to support this, I believe that the animal’s bright colour is a warning to predators that it tastes bad or is toxic.

I assure you I will be on the lookout for this wonder worm to try to learn more (I would love to see the proboscis in action)!

See the short video clip (30 sec) of my white-ringed ribbon worm encounter at this link.

More on ribbon worms at this link (includes a diagram of the internal anatomy).

Update January 12: A neighbour, Graham MacDonald, shared his observations of white-lined ribbon worms preying on rockweed isopods on a local sandy beach. He has repeatedly observed a black structure extending from the worm to the isopod and moving around on the isopod (likely the probosis). He noted that it appeared that the isopod was suffering (due to toxin or digestive juices?) and that it was a prolonged process. I will definitely be going to sandy beaches to see if I can capture this on film. Thank you Graham.