A reader who fishes on the Coos River recently wrote to us about “sand worms” that evidently live along the shores of the river’s estuaries. The sand worms or sandworms (the spelling isn’t consistent) reportedly live under rocks and might have “pincers that can inflict pain.” With the exception of the pincers, the sandworms look like regular earthworms. The reader asked several questions about the worms, but at bottom he was merely wondering what the creatures are because he assumed the term “sand worm” was a colloquial name. Based on the reader’s description, it seems that he is probably talking about either Arenicola marina (lugworms) or Alitta virens (king ragworms), both of which are sometimes referred to as “sandworms.”
Unfortunately, the reader did not send us a photo of the worm in question, and in fact he never saw the worm directly himself. Rather, he was simply told that they live along the river, and was shown a picture of what he was told was a sandworm. So, all we have to work with is the reader’s description, which is somewhat strange because it essentially blends the characteristics of both Arenicola marina and Alitta virens. Arenicola marina, which are more commonly called lugworms, look a lot like earthworms, exactly in line with our reader’s description. However, we have never heard of lugworms inflicting any pain with pincers, which lugworms don’t appear to have anyway. (They have small, fine bristles along the middle sections of their bodies, but obviously these aren’t pincers.) Our other suggestion, Alitta virens, do in fact have pincers, although we aren’t sure how often they use these to inflict pain, and in any case they don’t look like earthworms. They actually look a bit like millipedes because they have lots of pronounced bristles along the sides of their bodies that look like legs. In other words, they don’t have the smooth bodies of earthworms or lugworms.
So, as we said, the reader’s description seems to blend Arenicola marina or Alitta virens together into one worm. Perhaps the reader was looking at a picture of a lugworm, and then whoever showed him the picture informed him about the pincers, which don’t actually belong to lugworms, but rather to king ragworms. (The reader never says that he saw the pincers – he only noted that the picture he saw depicted something that looked like an earthworm, and he was merely told that it had pincers.) Despite the fact that these creatures don’t look especially similar, they do share many characteristics. Both are polychaetes that burrow into sand or mud along ocean coasts, although they could be found on the shores of estuaries as well, which because of their brackish water are essentially an extension of the ocean they flow into. They are also both used as fish bait, and this is potentially all the reader is interested in anyway. King ragworms appear to have a greater presence in the Coos River region according to this map of Alitta virens distribution, but we presume some lugworms can be found in this area as well.
To conclude, we can’t be sure exactly what the “sand worm” was in the picture our reader saw, but it seems like it was either a lugworm or king ragworm (Arenicola marina or Alitta virens, respectively), two creatures that are called sandworms and are actually fairly similar. (There are also “sandworms” in Dune, but we presume he didn’t see a picture of a fictional worm that is hundreds of feet long.) We encourage our reader to look into both possibilities and then hopefully he can figure out what he found.
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