Saturday, February 27, 2021
Science

Prehistoric worm that leapt from the seabed unearthed in Taiwan

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Eunice aphroditois, nicknamed the bobbit worm, pictured, which catches ambushes prey using its razor-sharp mandibles

Eunice aphroditois, nicknamed the bobbit worm, pictured, which catches ambushes prey using its razor-sharp mandibles

The ocean floor is home to many weird and terrifying predators, many of which could discourage anyone from ever setting foot into the sea again.

This creature is Eunice aphroditois – also known as the Bobbit worm, apparently after an underwater photographer decided two decades ago that its hunting methods were similar to the Bobbitt family incident of 1993.

That incident involved Lorena Bobbitt slicing nearly half her husband’s member off. 

E. aphroditois is similar, according to a 2011 paper in Revista de Biologia Tropical , ‘because either the widely open jaw pieces resemble scissors, or because the exposed portion resembles an erect penis.’  

The bobbit worm ambushes prey using its razor-sharp mandibles

The nickname is inaccurate – Mrs Bobbitt inflicted the grievous injury on her husband using a knife rather than scissors – but it has stuck nevertheless.

And it is perhaps a close enough comparison to dissuade any man from skinny dipping in warm waters near the sea floor at depths of 30 to 130ft, where the long-living nocturnal worm is generally found.

The creature, which spends its life mostly buried beneath the sand of the sea-floor, sticks just a portion of its body up into the water where it has five antennae to sense its prey, usually smaller worms and fish.  

It snares its prey using a complex feeding apparatus called a pharynx which can turn inside-out, like the fingers of a glove, and has sharp mandibles on the end which snap shut like scissors.

Unlucky creatures are sometimes sliced in two because of the speed and strength of the worm’s attacks, and it can dish out nasty bites to any humans who stray too close.

One the prey is caught, the worm shoots back into its burrow to feed. When prey is scarce it also feeds on seaweed and other sea plants, and will scavenge for morsels around the surface of its burrow.

Noted for its unusually large body size and length, E. aphroditois is found in warm waters all over the world.

Since the 19th century, marine biologists have recognised it has having one of the longest bodies among polychaetes – a class of segmented, mostly marine worms.

They average a length of about one metre, but specimens measuring as long as three metres have been discovered.

A report by Hiro’omi Uchida , assistant director of the Kushimoto Marine Park Centre in Japan, describes one such mammoth worm found hiding in one of the floats of a mooring raft in Japan’s Seto Fishing Habour in 2009.

At 9ft 10in long, about a pound in weight and with 673 segments, the worm they discovered was one of the largest specimens of E. aphroditois ever found. 

‘It is uncertain when the individual first entered the mooring raft and fish corral during the 13 years the structure sat in the harbour,’ he writes.

‘It is also uncertain whether the worm arrived by larval settlement or at a semi-adult stage of development. 

‘Nonetheless, the individual surely had been living in its comfortable floating home for a quite a long time.’  

 



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