Monday, October 31, 2016

Eyes Under Puget Sound: Critter of the Month – The Hair Worms

Bad hair day 

Everyone knows the feeling; some days your hair won’t cooperate no matter how much you fuss with it. Forget the beehive, the perm or the pompadour.

Might as well give up and put on a hat.

Cirratulus spectabilis. This cirratulid worm has particularly dense “branchiae,” or gills; giving it that bed-head look.

Our Critter of the Month, the Hair Worm, can probably sympathize. For them, unruly locks are just a way of life.

Let your hair down

The Hair Worms belong to a family of polychaetes (marine segmented worms) called Cirratulidae, and their tangled “hairs” are actually branchiae, external gills that occur in pairs along their bodies.

Branchiae are filled with blood vessels and help with oxygen exchange, which is especially important when you live in a low-oxygen environment like the soft sediments of Puget Sound.

Aphelochaeta glandaria, the most abundant
cirratulid species in Puget Sound.
Some species of Hair Worms, like the common Puget Sound species Aphelochaeta glandaria (pictured to the right), have an additional centerpiece to their ‘do: a pair of grooved feeding tentacles located behind the head.

When the animal is completely buried in the mud, it can extend the tentacles to the sediment’s surface to search for food particles, which are funneled back into the worm’s mouth.

If only our hair were that functional!

Splitting hairs

Cirratulids are especially tricky critters to identify because there are many species that look similar, so taxonomists must use their smallest features to tell them apart. We examine the arrangement of their tentacles and branchiae under a microscope, as well as their setae – tiny hairs that poke out of each body segment.

LEFT: A cirratulid polychaete in the genus Chaetozone.
RIGHT: A close up of the cinctures on Chaetozone’s posterior (rear) end.

For example, cirratulids in the genus Chaetozone have setae and spines arranged in rings called cinctures near the ends of their bodies, and each species’ cinctures are distinct.

The name game

Another reason that cirratulids give taxonomists major headaches is that many of them are new to science, so no published descriptions exist to compare them to. Polychaete experts diligently work at describing these new species and giving them names.

The new species of cirratulid from Puget Sound,
named after our very own Maggie Dutch!
It is an aspiration for scientists to one day have a new species named after them – to be immortalized in the scientific record for all time. It’s against the scientific rules to name a species after yourself, so you must be deemed worthy by another scientist in order to go down in taxonomic history.

Here at Ecology, our own Maggie Dutch, lead scientist of our Marine Sediment Monitoring team, recently received this honor when her former colleague re-described a genus of cirratulids and named one of the new species Kirkegaardia dutchae!

Maggie provided specimens of K. dutchae from the Marine Sediment Monitoring Program’s species collection for use in the redescription study, published by Jim Blake in 2015. This unique thread-like cirratulid is known only from shallow depths of Puget Sound.

By: Dany Burgess & Angela Eagleston, Environmental Assessment Program

Critter of the Month

Our benthic taxonomists, Dany and Angela, share their discoveries by bringing us a benthic Critter of the Month. Dany and Angela are scientists who work for the Marine Sediment Monitoring Program. These posts give you a peek into the life of Puget Sound’s least-known inhabitants. In each issue we will highlight one of the Sound’s many fascinating invertebrates. We’ll share details on identification, habitat, life history, and the role this critter plays in the sediment community.

Can't get enough benthos? See photos from our Eyes Under Puget Sound collection on Flickr. Look for the Critter of the Month on our blog.

No comments: