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North Sea marine worm discovered

19 October 2005

A new species of marine worm called Osedax mucofloris (which means bone-eating snot-flower) has been found surviving in one of the best-studied marine environments on the planet, the shallow water environment of the North Sea.

Photomicrograph of Osedax mucofloris the new species of marine worm

Photomicrograph of Osedax mucofloris, the new species of marine worm © The Natural History Museum, London 2005.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum and Göteborg University in Sweden have discovered a large colony of the worm growing on the bones of a minke whale in the North Sea.

'We were astounded to discover a species completely new to science in an environment that is so well known' said Adrian Glover, marine biologist at the Natural History Museum.

In October 2003 Adrian and Thomas Dahlgren sank the remains of a dead, stranded minke whale and then studied the fauna living on the decomposing carcass. In August 2004 the scientists studied a bone from the carcass and were surprised to find a species of marine worm (Osedax) that had previously been thought to exist only in a deep-sea environment.

Electron micrograph of Osedax mucofloris the new species of marine worm © The Natural History Museum

Electron micrograph of Osedax mucofloris, the new species of marine worm © The Natural History Museum, London 2005.

Glover and Dahlgren have been comparing the worms with similar 'zombie worm' species that scientists from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have recently recovered from a deep-sea 'whale-fall' (the disintegrated carcass of a whale) off the coast of California.

There are remarkable similarities between the two worm species, despite being separated by two ocean basins and 2,500m of water depth. All of the Osedax species found so far appear to be closely related to the vestimentiferan tubeworms, which are known only from undersea volcanoes called hydrothermal vents. One theory is that whale-falls may be used as a type of 'stepping-stone' for deep-sea creatures to disperse throughout the oceans.

The paper is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.