You may have heard about the bone-eating "zombie worms" and their ability to bore through the thick bones in whale corpses, but new research on the creepy worms reveals more details on the lifestyle of the bone eaters.
Researchers discovered the creatures a little more than a decade ago and found that the worms were able to remove nutrients from bones, despite having no mouth, gut or anus. But just how the worms are able to physically bore into the bones has been a mystery until now.
It turns out that rather than bone-drilling worms, describing the tiny creatures as acid spewing, bone-dissolving worms might be more accurate.
The acid is produced by proton pumps -- protein-containing cells abundant in the front end of the worm's body. Martin Tresguerres, a marine physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. said he has studied these acid-secreting structures in other fish but has never seen anything like what the zombie worm has.
"The amount of proton pumps they have is off the charts," he told OurAmazingPlanet.
The true name of the zombie worm is Osedax -- Latin for "bone devourer."
Another recent study of the bone devourers sought to answer whether the worms eat the bones of creatures other than whales. Researchers took tuna and wahoo bones, as well as shark cartilage, and placed it inside wire cages approximately 1,000-meters (3,280-feet) deep off Monterey, Calif. When the researchers retrieved the cages five months later, they found Osedax living on the fish bones, although the shark cartilage had already been eaten by unknown organisms.
"We weren't sure that Osedax boneworms would be able to settle on fish bone and to grow to maturity and breed. When it actually turned out that we could establish all these things it was very satisfying," said Greg Rouse, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
"That we actually found three different Osedax species living on the fish bones was a further bonus. The finding shows that Osedax boneworms are not whale bone specialists, but are arguably generalists and able to exploit a variety of vertebrate bones."
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