Tube worms are oddities that range from aquarium-sized feather dusters to giants grouping on the ocean floor. They surround themselves with an outer tube that bears roots on one end and reddish plumes on the other. Tube worms thrive by absorbing chemicals and producing bacteria that can break down organic debris.
Some tube worm species congregate at fissures on the ocean floor, including hydrothermal, or heat, vents in the Pacific Ocean. They’ve also been studied near cold, or hydrocarbon seeps, in the Gulf of Mexico. These fissures allow water to rush downward and interact with rocks, which creates a mineral release. The uprush brings nutrients swirling around the tube worms and other deep-dwelling creatures.
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Recent discoveries include tube worms that establish themselves on dead whales. They produce the bacteria that break down bone structure. Smaller aquarium species and those found in bogs and marshes are equally fascinating in behavior and appearance.
Body structure and growth habits are a continuing source of interest. At the cold seeps, they may grow slowly over decades. At heat fissures, they mature rapidly to giant sizes of 8-15 feet. Categorization is also confusing. Some fall into the segmented worm group while others are closely related, but with a well-defined solid outer tube. Those that dwell along the ocean floor are sometimes grouped as “pogonophora,” which means beard-bearer in Greek.
Despite some conflicting information and argument, tube worms show some amazing characteristics in body structure. In its simplicity, the worm develops a calcified tube from specialized skin cells. This protective outer layer harbors a spongy bacteria-filled interior. Some believe that while still young, tube worms have an underdeveloped mouth and digestive tract that forms the basis for adult survival. The deep-sea worms apparently lose this part of their anatomy with age.
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Bright plumes give them an identity as well as absorption capabilities. Hemoglobin adds red coloration to the feathery tips, which attracts sulfides and other goodies. Once inside, bacteria convert the hydrogen sulfide for nourishment. The downside is that these same beauty-enhancing tentacles are also attractive nibbling for other creatures.
Tube worm species reproduce in different, and still odd, ways. Some species release young worms or are asexual, while others may leave their tube entirely for mating. For the whale-dwellers, females harbor tiny male worms within their bodies. Once the carcass is consumed, the adult tube worms die. First, however, eggs are produced and released to gain a new start at another site.