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Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the Nemertean Worms

As we embrace the marine life of the Gulf of Mexico during this year of “Embracing the Gulf”, we are currently hooked on worms.  In the last article we talked about the gross and creepy flatworms.  Gross because they are flat, pale in color, only have a mouth so they have to go to the bathroom using it – and creepy in that many of them are parasites, living in the bodies over vertebrates (particularly fish) and that is just creepy.  You may ask why would we even “embrace” such a thing?  Well… because they do exist and most of us know nothing about them.

A nemertean worm.
Photo: Okinawa Institute of Science

This week we continue with worms.  We continue with a different kind of flatworm.  They are not as gross, but maybe a little creepy.  They are called nemertean worms and I am pretty sure (a) you have never heard of them, and (b) you have never seen one.  So why “embrace” these?  Well… again it is education.  They do exist, and one day you MAY see one – and know what you are looking at.

 

Nemerteans are flatworms.  They are usually pale in color but a different from the classis fluke or tapeworm in a couple of ways.

1)      They do have a way for food to enter and another for waste to leave, what we call a complete digestive tract – and that’s nice. 

2)      They have this long extension connected to their head called a proboscis.  Many of them have a dart at the end they can use to kill their prey – and that’s creepy. 

3)      And as mentioned, most are carnivores, feeding on small invertebrates – and that’s okay. 

We rarely see them because they are nocturnal – hiding under rocks, shells, seaweed during the day and hunting at night.  Most are about eight inches long but some in the Pacific reach almost eight feet!

I would put that in the creepy file.

 

As we said, they are usually pale in color, though some may have yellow, orange, red, or even green hues to them.  Their heads are spade shaped and, again, hold a retracted proboscis.  This proboscis can be over half the length of the worm.  At the end is a stylet (a dart) which they can use to stab their prey (small invertebrates).  They can stab repeatedly, like using a knife, – they may stab and grab, like using a claw – or they may be a species that has toxin and kills their prey that way.
Nice.

 

Some would add this to the creepy file as well.  A long pale worm, moving at night, extending a long proboscis when they get near you with a sharp dart at the end they essentially “sting” you like a bee.

Yea, creepy.

But we NEVER hear about such things with humans.  They hunt small invertebrates like amphipods, isopods, and things like that.  If you picked one up, would it stick the dart in you?  My hunch would be yes – I honestly don’t know, I have only seen one to two in the 35+ years I have been teaching marine science and I did not pick them up.  I have never met anyone who has and have never read “DON’T PICK THESE UP – VERY DANGERSOUS”.  So, my hunch is that it would not be very painful at all.

But don’t take my word for it – again, I have rarely seen one… so, don’t pick them up 😊

 

There are about 650 species of nemertean worms in the world, 22 live in the Gulf of Mexico, and 16 live in the northern Gulf (near us).  They are basically marine, move across the environment on their slime trails, seeking prey primarily by the sense of smell at night.  Unlike the flukes and tapeworms, there are male and females in this group.  They fertilize their eggs externally to make the next generation of these harpooning hunters of the Gulf.

I don’t know if you will ever come across one of these.  You will know it by the flat body, pale color, and spade-shaped head, but I think it would be pretty neat to find one.  There are more worms to learn about in the Gulf of Mexico, but we will do that in another edition.