Thursday, June 24, 2010

A squirm of worms

What can be fat, flat, floppy, stiff, short, l o n g, armoured or nude, have no feet or many, wear a crown of tentacles or a bald pate, and be any colour of the rainbow? A worm, of course!

Every beach along the stretch of coast south of Campbell River had a full measure of worms. The wormholes, castings, and tubes we are accustomed to down here in the Fraser Delta, we passed by with a casual glance, and maybe one or two photos:

Worm tubes, Miracle Beach

But down in the lower intertidal zone, under mats of seaweeds, we found these:

Red-banded bamboo worm, Axiotella rubrocincta?

At first glance, I said, "A bamboo worm!". But now, examining the photo, I'm not sure. I don't see the bristles that the bamboo worm would have, but I can't find any other worm with those red bands. We have seen one like it, also out of its tube, at the bottom of Crescent Beach; its bristles are barely visible. So I'm sticking with Axiotella, for now.

Red calcareous tubeworm, Serpula columbiana.

There were many of these tubes cemented to the rocks. Many are just left-over empty tubes, but some have this red mouth. Underwater, the worm inside will extend its crown into a circular, brightly-coloured fan. When the tide goes out, it seals off the tube with a trap door, or operculum, which is all that we see here.

The worms usually get to about 2 1/2 inches long, but there are reports of 4 or 5 inch ones in the north of BC.

Orange ribbon worm, Tubulanus polymorphus.

These get up to 3 feet long. This one was not quite half that; maybe a bit over a foot, stretched out. Hard to tell; it wasn't co-operating with my idea of stretching it out in a straight line, and kept burrowing into the sand.

Ribbon worms are basically a digestive system in a tube. They capture food by extending a long proboscis (from the Greek; "front feed"), equipped with venom or glue.

Intertidal flatworm, with dwarf tubeworms.

Under a couple of rocks, we found clusters of these flatworms, which immediately slithered off in all directions. The two eyespots are visible here, at the widest point of the front end. The coiled pink tubes are dwarf calcareous tubeworms (Pileolaria spp.); the tubes are white and translucent, but the crowns of the worms inside are orange-red.

Another flatworm.

Two flatworms, a white ribbon worm, and several mud nemerteans, Paranemertes peregrina.

These purple and cream worms turned up at the edge of one of our flatworm group photos, somewhat blurry.  We hadn't noticed them, as we were chasing flatworms. Nor did I see the white ribbon worm until I was cropping the photo.

Another accidental mud nemertean, and a flathead clingfish, Gobiesox meandricus.

More on these fish, later. The worm here would be about 6 inches long. It may eventually reach 10 inches.

The mud nemertean is another ribbon worm. It can shorten itself up, becoming fatter and lumpy, or stretch out to a long, thin ribbon, with no segmentation.

Polychaetes. Blue-tinted polychaetes.

These are like the blood-red worms I have in my aquarium, but the ones we saw on Vancouver Island beaches were dark, and shimmered blue and green. These are quite small; the larger one is only a few inches long.

Three kinds of worms.

This pink ribbon worm was long. Really long. I pulled it gently out of almost liquid sand, and pulled and pulled; it kept coming. And by the time I'd reached the tail, the head was buried in sand a foot away. I never did get it all out at once. I'm not sure of the species; perhaps the rose ribbon worm, which grows to 6 feet long?

The cream-coloured worm behind it is not a ribbon; looking closely, I can see separate segments. I was so occupied with the pink one, that I never even noticed this one, nor the tiny section of red/pink polychaete at the upper left of the photo. (I can identify it as a polychaete by the bristles along the sides.)

What the ...?

This one has me completely befuddled. The front end has a crown of long, brown tentacles, then a segmented orange, "carrot" body, which enters a flexible tube coated with bits of shell and sand. Out the far end of the tube comes an orange, then green segmented worm, thinner and smoother than the head.

Here's the head end:

A bit of worm is visible inside the tube.

When I picked this up, it squirmed madly. The tail end tried to go south and the head went north, both ends looking for ground, the tube flopping around to meet the demands placed on it. I replaced it on the sand, and it lay quietly, half in and half out of its tube.

Here's a better view of the tentacles:

Tentacles like long, wavy, brown hair.

Our footing was precarious, and I had nothing solid to lean on. We gave up trying to get a good photo and covered the worm over with the seaweed.

Now I've gone through the encyclopedia and all my other books, searching for this. I can't find it. Does anyone recognize it?

*Update: Christopher Taylor says, in the comments, that it may be a terebellid, or what is commonly called a "spaghetti worm". I think he's right. None of the terebellids I've seen in my books or on the web look just like this, but the body structure matches: flexible tube, long tentacles at the mouth end, segmentation. I don't see gills, but they may be hidden, or not extended while the worm is out of the water.


  1. The last one might be some form of terebellid, perhaps?

  2. I didn't know that a bunch of worms was referred to as a squirm. I'll have to stop calling them herds.

  3. Christopher; I think you're right. I saw them in the encyclopedia, but all they show are the tentacles.

    Steve, I've called them that ever since I saw a vintage b&w "horror" movie (I laughed until I cried) about mutated earthworms with snapping teeth. The movie was called "Squirm".

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  5. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be mesmerized by looking at worms! Yet I am! Your pictures and information amaze me!

    I had a "Wanderin' Weeta" moment the other day - a beautiful colorful beetle with forked spikes on its back. I followed it around for half an hour trying to get a good picture - I've been out of town so I haven't had a chance to look at them yet.

    Thank you so much for your inspiration.

  6. Clytie, That beetle sounds fascinating! I'll be looking for it on your blogs. (Random Nature would be the one, I think?)


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