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Press release

Discovery of a bone-eating snot-flower
New worm species found in a shallow water environment

Although it looks like a 'monster from the deep' the newly discovered Osedax mucofloris (which means bone-eating snot-flower) has been found surviving in the shallow water environment of the North Sea. Scientists from the Natural History Museum and Göteborg University in Sweden have discovered a large colony of the new marine worm species growing on the bones of a minke whale in the North Sea. It is generally thought that the shallow water of the North Sea is the best-studied marine environment on the planet, so the find of such an unusual new species in this habitat is rare and exciting.

'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. 'It's amazing that discoveries of novel organisms are being made even right on our doorstep. You don't have to spend billions sending people into space, or even into the deep sea, to discover new species and throw up new scientific questions.'

In October 2003 Adrian and Thomas Dahlgren sank the remains of a dead, stranded minke whale in relatively shallow water (120m) close to Tjärnö Marine Laboratory on the Swedish Coast. The aim was to study the fauna supported by the carcass after the whale dies. The whale's decomposition was studied on a monthly basis using remotely operated vehicles and in August 2004 the team were able to recover a bone from the skeleton. To their surprise the scientists found a species of marine worm (Osedax) that had previously only been thought to exist in a deep-sea environment.

Using a combination of live observation, electron microscopy and DNA sequencing, 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. Scientists have found that 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 project will next look at how these organisms obtain their energy, as it has been suggested that they are using whale-oils inside the bone as a fuel source, with specialised bacteria inside their roots breaking down the oils to release energy. Studies will also look at how the species reproduces, using shallow-water Osedax worms on whale bones kept in aquaria and rearing from larval stage.

Notes for editors

  • Winner of the 2004 Large Visitor Attraction of the Year award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries. The Museum is committed to encouraging public engagement with science. This has been greatly enhanced by the Darwin Centre, a major new initiative, which offers visitors unique access behind the scenes of the Museum. Phase One of the project opened to the public in 2002 and Phase Two is scheduled to open in 2008.
  • The paper is being published online at in the journal 'Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences'. A print edition will follow.