Mouthless ‘zombie worms’ use acid to drill into whale bones

By David Ferguson
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 15:50 EDT
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Whale skeleton in Antarctica via Shutterstock
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A species of faceless, mouthless so-called zombie worm makes its home in the bones of whale skeletons on the ocean floor. According to Discovery.com, these worms use acid to bore into the bones, where they mate and feed on the nutrients inside.

Osedax worms, which are the subject of a study published Wednesday in the journal the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, use protein-containing cells called proton pumps on the front end of the worm’s body to dissolve the bone tissue of dead whales and burrow in.

Martin Tresguerres, a marine physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California told Discovery.com that he has seen these types of acid-producing cells before, but in zombie worms, “The amount of proton pumps they have is off the charts.”

The zombie worms were discovered off the California coast in 2002, according to National Geographic. The females are much larger than the males, say scientists. At any given time, 50 to 100 adult male worms live inside an adult female.

“This rapid sexual maturation of females, alongside the male dwarfism which was observed, enables the worms to reproduce effectively in the food-rich but highly isolated habitat of whale bones,” said a recent study in the journal Naturwissenschaften. Whale carcasses tend to be very far apart, meaning in order to ensure healthy offspring, a female must bring along her own supply of genetic variations.

The worms’ tiny larvae can drift for up to 10 days without nourishment, which is what enables them to travel after birth to new carcasses and mix their genes with other zombie worms.

Tresguerres told Discovery that the worms don’t even have digestive systems. Collagens and nutrients are released when the worms dissolve the bones, but it’s still unclear how the worms absorb them. He and study co-authors Sigrid Katz and Greg Rouse hypothesize that symbiotic bacteria may aid the worms in breaking down food for digestion.

There are multiple species of zombie worms, all headed under the Osedax genus. The creatures’ closest relatives are worms that also lack guts and mouths and live in the forbidding temperatures and toxic chemical stews around deep sea vents which dot the floor of the deep ocean.

[image via Shutterstock.com]

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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