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Whale carcass yields bone-devouring worms

MOSS LANDING-Scientists studying a whale carcass in Monterey Canyon recently announced the discovery of two new species of unique worms that feed on the bones of dead whales. In the July 30 issue of Science, the researchers describe these worms, whose bodies and feeding strategies differ from those of any other known animal. The worms have no eyes, legs, mouths, or stomachs, but they do have colorful feathery plumes and green "roots." They use the roots to infiltrate the bones of dead whales, digesting the fats and oils inside with the help of symbiotic bacteria. Marine biologist Greg Rouse, from the South Australian Museum, worked with scientists Shana Goffredi and Robert Vrijenhoek at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to classify the new worms, placing them in a new genus called "Osedax," which is Latin for "bone devourer."

The most visible features of Osedax rubiplumus and Osedax frankpressi are their reddish feathery plumes, which extend into the water and act as gills. The plumes connect to a muscular trunk, which can be withdrawn into a transparent tube when the worms are disturbed. At the other end of the trunk, hidden inside the whale bone, the body widens to form a large egg sac. The greenish roots, branching off from the egg sac, are filled with bacteria that break down oil in the whale bones. The scientists were initially puzzled by the fact that all the worms they collected were females. However, while examining the two- to seven-centimeter-long female worms under a microscope, they discovered that most females had dozens of microscopic male worms living within their bodies. These male worms looked as if they had never developed past their larval stage-their bodies still contained bits of yolk-but they also contained copious quantities of sperm.

The researchers also observed that female worms of all sizes were full of eggs, which led co-author Vrijenhoek to comment, "These worms appear to be the e
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Contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett
kfb@mbari.org
831-775-1835
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
29-Jul-2004


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