Officially, it's called the osedax, and its name, as well as its feathery appearance, make it seem like a plant from a Dr. Seuss book. But this worm also goes by fiercer monikers such as bone worm or zombie worm, and it can consume the rock-hard bones of some of Earth's biggest animals, including whales.
The zombie worm secretes acids to help it access the inner contents of those dead whale bones. Then, it uses symbiotic bacteria to convert the bone's proteins and fats into nutrients that serve as its food. Its feathery "branches" wiggle in the water, pulling in oxygen to keep the worm alive.
Female zombie worms can grow up to around 2 inches (5 centimeters) long. The males are microscopic by comparison, and females will collect a male harem of these tiny guys on their bodies. Eventually, the males find their way into the female's oviducts. The female releases her fertilized eggs into the water, the worm's lifecycle begins anew, and the zombie worms go about their business of cleaning up whale debris in the ocean's darkest corners.
Thanks to better technologies, we humans have finally begun to peer into the blackness of the Mariana Trench. Still, this underwater canyon is one of the most unexplored places on our planet, and it will likely remain so until we find new ways to peer into the depths without risking being crushed or drowned (or breaking our research budgets).
So like the trench itself, the animals that live there will continue to be mysteries, too. They may be our Earth cousins, but considering how little we know about them, they might as well be from another world.
Author's Note: 10 Weird Creatures From the Mariana Trench
More than two decades ago, I was fascinated by "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," a documentary-style TV show that explored the world's oceans. The crew poked their cameras into every underwater nook and cranny they could find, showing millions of viewers a new perspective on life beneath the waves. Although these days our cameras and scientific technology have improved immensely, we still have more questions than answers about life in the deepest parts of our seas — a testament to just how difficult it is for us to go adventuring in some parts of our own planet.
More Great Links
- Aguilera, Mario C. "The Deep Comes Alive." Triton. (June 26, 2015) http://www.alumni.ucsd.edu/s/1170/emag/emag-interior-2-col.aspx?sid=1170&gid=1&pgid=6301
- Bowerman, Mary. "Frilled Shark Caught off Australian Coast." USA Today. Jan. 22, 2015. (June 26, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2015/01/21/frilled-shark-sea-monster-caught-australia-coast/22099613/
- Chappell, Bill. "Rare and 'Horrific': Frilled Shark Startles Fishermen in Australia." NPR. Jan. 21, 2015. (June 26, 2015) http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/01/21/378944897/rare-and-horrific-frilled-shark-startles-fishermen-in-australia
- Crew, Becky. "Deep-Sea Hatchetfish." Australian Geographic. May 1, 2014. (June 26, 2015) http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/creatura-blog/2014/05/deep-sea-hatchetfish
- Florida Museum of Natural History. "Goblin Shark." (June 26, 2015) http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/gallery/descript/goblinshark/goblinshark.html
- Frazer, Jennifer. "What Lives at the Bottom of the Mariana Trench? More Than You Might Think." Scientific American. April 14, 2013. (June 26, 2015) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/what-lives-at-the-bottom-of-the-mariana-trench-more-than-you-might-think/
- Harmon, Katherine. "The Clear-headed Fish." Scientific American. (June 26, 2015) http://www.scientificamerican.com/gallery/the-clear-headed-fish/
- Harmon, Katherine. "Unusual Offshore Octopods: Telescope Octopus Has Totally Tubular Eyes." Scientific American. May 31, 2013. (June 26, 2015) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/octopus-chronicles/unusual-offshore-octopods-telescope-octopus-has-totally-tubular-eyes/
- Kids Discover. "Pacific Barreleye: Fish with a See-through Head." Aug. 19, 2013. (June 26, 2015) http://www.kidsdiscover.com/quick-reads/pacific-barreleye-fish-with-a-see-through-head/
- Knight, J.D. "Deep Sea Dragonfish." Sea and Sky. (June 26, 2015) http://www.seasky.org/deep-sea/dragonfish.html
- Knight, J.D. "Hatchetfish." Sea and Sky. (June 26, 2015) http://www.seasky.org/deep-sea/hatchetfish.html
- Lee, Jane J. "Watch: World's Deepest Fish Lurks 5 Miles Down in Mariana Trench." National Geographic. Dec. 21, 2014. (June 26, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141219-deepest-fish-mariana-trench-animal-ocean-science/
- Martin, R. Aidan. "Frilled Shark." ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. (June 26, 2015) http://www.elasmo-research.org/education/ecology/deepsea-frilled_shark.htm
- McCarthy, Erin. "8 Things You Probably Didn't Know About the Seadevil Anglerfish." Mental Floss. Nov. 25, 2014. (June 26, 2015) http://mentalfloss.com/article/60250/8-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-seadevil-anglerfish
- Monterey Bay Aquarium. "Fanfin Anglerfish." (June 26, 2015) http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/fishes/fanfin-anglerfish
- Monterey Bay Aquarium. "Hatchetfish." (June 26, 2015) http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/fishes/hatchetfish
- Morgenstein, Mark. "Shrimper Who Caught Rare Goblin Shark: 'Man, He's Ugly!'" CNN. May 5, 2014. (June 26, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/04/us/florida-goblin-shark/
- National Geographic. "The Mariana Trench." (June 26, 2015) http://www.deepseachallenge.com/the-expedition/mariana-trench/
- Oskin, Becky. "Mariana Trench: The Deepest Depths." Live Science. Oct. 8, 2014. (June 26, 2015) http://www.livescience.com/23387-mariana-trench.html
- Shapiro, Leo. "Osedax." Encyclopedia of Life. (June 26, 2015) http://eol.org/pages/49241/overview
- Tangley, Laura. "Mysteries of the Twilight Zone." National Wildlife Federation. Oct. 1, 2001. (June 26, 2015) http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/national-wildlife/animals/archives/2001/mysteries-of-the-twilight-zone.aspx
- University of California at Berkeley Museum of Palentology. "Googly-eyed Fishes." Understanding Evolution. (June 26, 2015) http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/fishtree_03
- Walker, Brian. "Something Out of 'Alien': Rare Frilled Shark Caught Off Australian Coast." CNN. Jan. 22, 2015. (June 26, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/22/world/australia-frilled-shark/
- Wrobel, Dave. "Benthocodon pedunculata." Jellies Zone. (June 26, 2015) http://jellieszone.com/benthocodon.htm
HowStuffWorks takes a look at seahorses and the researchers who are providing them with breeding grounds and living quarters.