Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum and his team have discovered two new species of bone-eating Antarctic worms, Osedax antarcticus and Osedax deceptionensis.
Bone-eating worms live by eating stripped skeletons of dead whales, secreting acids to dissolve their way to a good meal. Formally, five species of these worms were known. However, after conducting a recent study, Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum and his team added two more names to this list - Osedax antarcticus and Osedax deceptionensis. They were found in the Antarctic waters.
"The deep sea that surrounds the Antarctic continent is one of the least explored ecosystems on Earth," Discovery quoted Glover as saying. "The organisms that live there are dependent on a supply of food from the surface, in extreme examples this can be the remains of a whale or piece of wood. These large 'organic-falls' are unstudied in Antarctica."
For this new study, the researchers left planks of pine and oak as well as whalebone sitting for more than a year on the seafloor in three different locations along the West Antarctic Peninsula. Both items were retrieved after 14 months. While the wooden planks remained pristine, the whalebone was covered with a pelt of wriggling, rosy-hued worms.
"Previous research had suggested that Osedax had diverged from groups that inhabited sulphidic hydrothermal vents and cold hydrocarbon seeps," explained Dr Glover in a BBC report. "But as we added in more taxa and more genetic evidence, it implied they are more closely related to these mud-dwelling 'beard' worms. And that makes sense that the ancestor should be a sediment-dweller given what we think about the distribution of whale bones on the sea floor."
Bone-eating worms were first reported in 2004. The threadlike creatures, varying from 0.6 mm to 15 mm in length, are mouth-less and gutless, yet they're able to feed on the skeletons of dead animals, including whales, birds, fish, reptiles, and even cows. Previous studies have shown that the worms form large colonies of elongated females, their trunks ending in reddish, wavy plumes that function as gills, while their greenish, root-like structures release an acid that enables them to tunnel into the bone. The males, in contrast, aren't readily visible, because they're non-feeding dwarfs that live in the gelatinous tubes surrounding the females.