A Sea Worm's Surprising Living Arrangement

Novel Species Discovered on Floor of Monterey Bay

The female Osedax frankpressi.

The female Osedax frankpressi. Greg Rouse hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Rouse
The female 'Osedax frankpressi'

The female 'Osedax frankpressi' Greg Rouse hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Rouse

In a well-explored part of the ocean, researchers have unexpectedly come across a novel species of worm. Biologists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California were trolling the bottom of the bay with a remote-controlled submarine, looking for clams. What they found instead were exposed bones of a dead whale covered in a red carpet of inch-long worms.

The tubeworms are unlike any previously seen. They have a large bulbous end filled with eggs. Surrounding the large ovary is a green tissue filled with bacteria, which grow down like roots into the marrow of the whale bones. Lacking mouths or guts, the worms depend on the whale-bone-eating bacteria they carry around to provide them with energy.

The oddity continues: as many as 100 microscopic male worms live within a female.

The researchers describe their findings in the current issue of Science. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, the discovery is a reminder that the ocean still holds many mysteries.

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