‘Stylish’ worm studied for the company it keeps

[USA] Not just any worm dresses up its tunnel with bits of shell, debris, dead spartina and seaweed. Not just any worm can regrow a head if it’s bitten off.

The “decorator worm” is a weirdly fascinating marine creature that local biologists are studying to get a read on the impact of an invasive red algae. The worm, officially Diopatra cuprea, is one of a host of critters burrowing in muddy sands in the estuaries’ intertidal zone.

But this one piles what it digs from its burrow into minaret-like tubes rising out of the beach. Then it decorates, for reasons that are still something of a mystery. The algae, a type of seaweed, is a puzzle, too. It came from Japan, maybe carried with oysters, and has now spread its way around nearly every coast in the world.

The algae apparently is a boon for at least parts of the ecosystem because it provides some creatures habitat and others food. But it’s become a nuisance for shrimpers and crabbers because it fouls nets and pots.

And it could be a menace to the Lowcountry if it feeds algal blooms. That’s what a team of researchers that includes College of Charleston biologist Erik Sotka is trying to determine.

Algal blooms are just what they sound like: sudden growth spurts of alga that can create “dead zones” in the water where there’s not enough oxygen for fish and other marine organisms to survive. They have begun to occur in the ocean along the developed Grand Strand beach, raising concern they could happen here next.

The decorator worms are “ubiquitous. They live all up and down the East Coast. You go out at low tide, look down a muddy beach and you’ll see them everywhere,” said William Savidge, a Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor in Savannah.

This time of year, its tubes are covered with the red algae.

The worm and the algae are friends with benefits, so to speak. The algae uses the worm’s tube to keep anchored in place; the worm “farms” the algae for tiny crustaceans it eats, according to a study by Nicole Kollars, a former master’s student at the college.

Decorator worms “are pretty amazing little beasts,” Sotka said.

Reach Bo Petersen at (843) 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.


Photo: Decorator worms adorn their burrow tubes with debris, seaweed and bits of shell. PROVIDED BY STACY KRUEGER-HADFIELD

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