Monday, April 06, 2009

Animal of the Week -- April 6, 2009

Good-day to you all,

Imagine an earthworm, colour it brown-grey with a little iridescence. Add to each of its segments, on either side (as much as a cylinder has sides), a fleshy appendage, part tentacle, part leg. Surround each appendage with bristles. To the simple opening that is the mouth of your earthworm add sensory tentacles and wide snapping pincer-like jaws. Sounds pretty gross right? .... Now, scale it up to over a metre in length. Hold that thought. Now imagine you work in a provincial aquarium where mysteriously coral has been being devoured in your reef tank, and fish in that display have been found with large chunks missing from them. You can't for the life of you work out what is causing the damage, so gradually, piece by piece, you dismantle the display. One evening, on lifting up a lump of coral, the giant worm leaps out at you -- mouth tentacles flailing, mucus dripping from its snapping jaws, fleshy appendages undulating.


Thank your lucky stars you've got a sofa to hide behind, because the hapless workers at Newquay's Blue Reef Aquarium had no such comfort when they found the 4 ft long polychaete worm, which they have since nicknamed Barry.

Polychaetes are a huge class of animals of more than 10 000 species, including free-living predators, tiny zooplankton, sedentary tube worms, and fan worms. So, I don't hold out too much hope that I should accurately identify the species in question here. However, a little online research shows that the size and habits of Barry match worms of the genus Eunice. Searching further -- the new google autocomplete function trying to direct me to Gladiators star of the 1990s, Eunice Huthart -- it seems that a very likely species is Eunice aphroditois (Bobbit worm).

Bobbit worms are large omnivorous polychaetes that inhabit pacific coral reefs. For the most part they graze on algae, but they are not averse to munching on a little coral from time to time, and their lightning quick speed enables them to also make fast food out of swimming crustaceans and fish ( Barry is typical size of a large Bobbit worm, although they reportedly reach 3 m in length.

The species common name is after Lorena Bobbit, famed for dismembering her husband John Wayne Bobbit. After mating, the female worms often use their lightning attack to bite off and devour their mates' private parts. You might think the allusion to Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, in the species name something of an odd choice for a creature that looks and behaves the way of a Dr Who monster. However, one of the stories of Aphrodite's origin is that Gaia, sick of Uranus imprisoning the children she had with him, gave her son Cronos a sickle and ordered him to seek revenge by castrating his father. Dutifully Cronos carried out his mother's wishes and threw his father's parts into the sea, from the discarded tackle grew beautiful Aphrodite who was born to shore on briny foam, or perhaps a clam shell.

Happy easter,

Peter Hayward
Head Keeper
Animal of the Week

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