Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Why I don’t go in the water: More on Squidworm

No, not Spongebob’s curmudgeonly friend, Squidward, this post is about squidworm. Is it a worm? Yes. Squid? No. Evil? Quite possibly. I mean, just look:

Who lives in your nightmares under the sea? SQUIDWORM WIGGLYPANTS!

Ugh. All wiggly and covered in its nasty little appendages. That’s not a proper worm, its the embodiment of an entry mid-way through the “S” section of the Lovecraftian bestiary. Of course, its only about 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) long, but it has, like, 10 of these little arms.

Squidworm was discovered 2,800 meters (about 9200 feet) beneath the Indian Ocean, thanks to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for Finding Tiny Awful Things (EDIT: I mentioned this earlier), who found it using one of their handy submersibles. Which one? the MSNBC article I linked from doesn’t say. Bad MSNBC.

Moreover, the MSNBC folks categorize this as a missing link, which gets my hackles up some. Not only does “missing link” rank along with “holy grail” as my least favorite science cliche, it isn’t a missing link. Missing link implies transitional fossil. This is real, this is now. To what are we proposing squidworm as link between, Greg asks in a spit-flecked bit of poorly structured sentence? A worm and squid? Annelida and Mollusca? (Same thing, just getting fancy.) Can’t blame MSNBC too much, of course, as they were quoting a researcher who was looking for a way to say that these critters represent a branch of the evolutionary tree (ugh, talk about bad science cliche) where worms could move between the mud and the sea above — in that bit of the deep water known as the benthic (great word) zone.

Fortunately, you can read the scientific article in Biology Letters (if you happen to have access) which states that they used the awesomely-named Max Rover, Global Explorer, which sounds more like a PBS Kids series about a globe-trotting canine than a deep sea submersible. Max Rover isn’t part of Woods Hole, but apparently a system run by a company called Deep Sea Systems, presumably a WHOI-related contractor or something.

The Biology Letters article muses on how squidworm has managed to evade detection:

The relative inaccessibility of the deep sea has left most of its vast spaces unexplored, so discovery of new species is seldom surprising. The unusual morphology, large size, numerous observations (16 within seven dives), behaviour and phylogenetic position of T. samae are however a surprise. How could such an animal evade collection until now? We believe that the immense volume of deep, pelagic habitat, the difficulty of sampling deep demersal communities and T. samae’s ability to swim away from towed observational or sampling gear probably all contributed to its long seclusion.

The lead researcher on the project author on the study, Karen Osborn of UC, San Diego/Scripps Oceanographic Institute, previously published the discovery of a species of ocean worm that used bioluminescent bombs to evade predators. Squidworms, bomber worms…what hath Karen wrought open mankind with her insatiable thirst for the damnable horrors of annelida?

On yet another tangent, Karen’s lab website is found at spineless.ucsd.edu/ — Spineless! How freakin’ precious is that?

Update: I switched lead researcher to lead author, because I honestly don’t know if Karen was the lead on the overall project, but she was certainly the lead author on the paper.