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A Sea Worm's Surprising Living Arrangement

In a well-explored part of the ocean, researchers have unexpectedly come across a novel species of worm. Biologists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California were trolling the bottom of the bay with a remote-controlled submarine, looking for clams. What they found instead were exposed bones of a dead whale covered in a red carpet of inch-long worms.

The tubeworms are unlike any previously seen. They have a large bulbous end filled with eggs. Surrounding the large ovary is a green tissue filled with bacteria, which grow down like roots into the marrow of the whale bones. Lacking mouths or guts, the worms depend on the whale-bone-eating bacteria they carry around to provide them with energy.

The oddity continues: as many as 100 microscopic male worms live within a female.

The researchers describe their findings in the current issue of Science. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, the discovery is a reminder that the ocean still holds many mysteries.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.