30 July 2004

Bone-devouring worms discovered

Two worm species discovered in the dark recesses of the deep sea could rival the macabre beasts of your childhood nightmares. Scientists have named a new genus, Osedax, which is Latin for 'bone devourer', for worms that thrive by excavating the bones of fallen whale carcasses.

The worms contain bacteria that help them digest the fats and oils of the whale skeletons. This type of symbiotic relationship has never been seen before, and may represent a completely new type of metabolism.

Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California, discovered a whale skull that was 'carpeted with worms' while searching for clam beds in the trough of Monterey Canyon, some 3,000 metres deep.

But the worms were like nothing they had ever seen before. The females - roughly the thickness of a pencil and a few centimetres in length - lack eyes, mouths or stomachs. Instead they consist of a balloon-like egg sac, which branches into a greenish root system.

These branching roots grow into the whalebone to extract fats and oils from the marrow. Symbiotic bacteria that live inside the roots break down the lipids, but how nutrients are transferred from the bones to the bacteria and then to the worms is not yet known.

Where's Jerry Bruckheimer when you need him. Actually, considering the mess Bruckheimer invariably makes of the science underlying his flicks, let's feed him to the bone devourers.

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