Someone says ‘worms’ and what comes to mind? Probably not anything lovely what with hulls riddled with worm holes, hysterical little sisters chased by big brothers holding earthworms or coming ashore after a swim to find one’s legs covered with leeches. With over 22,000 species of annelids (segmented worms) in the world, one can conjure up all sorts of horrors and tall tales.
Of the 22,000 species of worms, roughly 1,000 are marine worms with many more species waiting to be discovered as the technology necessary to explore the mysteries of earth’s waters advances. Although it is unlikely we will be invited to take a submersible 8,000 feet under the Pacific to see patches of four-feet tall red feathery tubeworms living around hydrothermal vents, we can see some rather spectacular marine worms while wading and swimming.
Found around the world not only in the tropics but also in cold water, the evolution and diversity of marine worms is nothing short of spectacular. Imagine kayaking an Alaskan lake and seeing a large purple worm with a snake-like head swimming beside the kayak, or, exploring the oceans’ depths expecting to find no living thing yet discovering worms that thrive in 400 degree-plus highly acidic water.
One of the more interesting looking marine worms we encounter in the Caribbean, the tropical western Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is the bristle worm, aka fire worm. They are found up to 450 feet deep, on reefs as well as along shallow shorelines, in rocky areas, muddy bottoms, and floating around in surface debris.
In these waters, the most common is the Orange or Bearded Fire Worm. Looking much like a reddish orange caterpillar/centipede hybrid with tiny pods of white fur along each side, woe betide the uninformed person who attempts to pet one. They are called fire worms for a reason!
Their white fur is not the least bit soft. In fact, the furry looking hairs are actually bristles thus their other common name, bristle worms. Accidentally step on, brush against, or foolishly pet an Orange Fire Worm and one suffers a patch of poisonous bristles embedded in his skin with a fiery burning sensation radiating from the affected area that may last several hours. The poison contained in these bristles is a neurotoxin that may also cause dizziness and nausea.
Nonetheless, fire worms are amazing creatures living in our seas for approximately 300 million years and little changed based on rare fossil evidence. Classified as segmented worms, the adult Orange Fire Worm’s body, except for the head and terminal or last segment, is composed of multiple identical segments, each segment sporting a pair of parapodia, or feet, covered with chaetae or bristles. When the worm is not stressed, the chaetae lie close to the feet but when threatened or harassed the chaetae are raised in defense giving the worm a furry appearance.
The Orange or Bearded Fire Worm is carnivorous feeding upon both soft and hard corals, sponges, shellfish, small shrimp and small squid as well as detritus. They in turn are fed upon by cone shells and various fish such as wrasse and mullet. In fact, fishermen in certain areas dread the fire worms’ annual reproduction rituals as millions rise to the surface, where local fish gorge themselves and could care less about an angler’s baited hook.
Once a year, in early spring, the Orange Fire Worms reproduce in a spectacular display. They rise to the surface as the females take on a greenish phosphorescing glow. This glow draws in the males who begin to flash like tiny strobes and as male meets female, their reproductive segments drop off and combine in the water where larvae hatch and drift out to sea to continue the life cycle.
What to do if one finds himself on fire with a patch of embedded fire worm bristles? Since the tiny bristles are quite brittle, it’s difficult to completely remove them but start with some very sticky tape and place the tape solidly over the bristles and pull. Follow the tape application with rubbing alcohol to help break down the toxin; however, expect some discomfort to remain. If other symptoms other than irritation at the wound site occur, it’s best to seek treatment as soon as possible from a medical professional.
Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.