Last week, I had one of those inner sanctum Smithsonian experiences. Cheryl Bright, manager of the National Invertebrate Collection, gave me and a few other journalists a behind-the-scenes tour of Pod 5 at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. Also known as the “wet collections,” Pod 5 contains over 25 million biological specimens—some of which are the first of their species ever discovered—jarred and preserved in fluids.
The library of specimens, made famous by Dan Brown’s 2009 bestseller The Lost Symbol, is cold and damp, conditions that minimize the evaporation of the alcohol in the jars. One of Brown’s characters works at the Museum Support Center, and Brown based his description of the pod on a tour Bright gave him in April 2008. The novelist was pretty spot on when he wrote, “The massive room looked as if a mad scientist had taken over a Walmart and packed every aisle and shelf with specimen jars of all shapes and sizes.”
Bright, who has worked for the Smithsonian since 1978, guided us to the National Worm Collection. Who knew there was such a thing? The collection contains 15 different phyla, 15 classes, 23 orders and 405 families of worms. A worm, as far at the collection is concerned, she says, is “anything longer than it is wide that doesn’t have a backbone.”
Bright introduced us to some of her personal favorites. One by one, she took each worm out of its jar and laid it in her hand for us to see, and even pet. This week’s list features five of the weirdest worms in the collection:
1. Giant Amazon Leech – Haementeria ghilianii, or the giant Amazon leech, can certainly grow to giant proportions. At up to 18 inches long, it is the largest leech in the world. The species was thought to be extinct, from the 1890s until the 1970s, when two adults were collected in French Guiana. One ended up at the University of California-Berkeley. Grandma Moses, as she was named, produced more than 750 baby leeches in just three years. Scientists in the fields of medicine, neurology and natural history studied Grandma Moses’s breeding colony and published a total of 46 pieces of research. When the leech died, UC Berkeley decided that the National Worm Collection was a suitable resting place for her. In Bright’s hand, Grandma Moses was the shape of a cobra’s hood, wide in the center but tapered on either end.
2. Sea Mouse – The second critter Bright revealed was a sea mouse collected on July 23, 1935, off the coast of Washington State and the San Juan Islands. The worm was just about the width and length of her hand. Covered with bristly hair, it actually looked like a mouse. She explained how they live and burrow in the muddy sea floor. I pet the furry, wet thing and cringed a bit, before Bright flipped it over and showed us the familiar segmented body of the worm.
3. Scale Worm – Bright then pulled out what she called “another showstopper.” The pale scale worm was long and had a fringe along each side of it. But its wildest feature had to be its jaws. Unlike most worms, which have internal jaws, this one had a head with visible teeth. Bright joked that while normally you fish with worms as bait, the best way to lure one of these ocean-dwelling worms is to actually put a fish on a hook and dangle it down in the crevices where the worm lives.
4. Blood Worm – Bright handled a brown, curly blood worm and pointed out how at one end, it had four internal jaws. The jaws just looked like four holes, almost like in a button. Compared to the others she had shown us, this one looked more like your average worm, just longer. But average worm it is not. This one is venomous. “It will not kill you,” says Bright, “But it feels worse than any bee sting.”
5. Giant Tube Worm – Giant tube worms, which live upwards of a mile deep in the ocean, have the girth of a quarter and can grow to about three feet long. There is one such worm in the National Worm Collection that was found in the Galapagos Rift in the late 1970s. Dr. Meredith Jones, a former curator at the National Museum of Natural History, first saw the giant worms while studying the rift in 1977 or 1978. He collected one, and it sat on his desk for a year and a half, says Bright, until he got the funding to do another dive. On that dive in 1979, he collected dozens of the animal, which helped him learn more about the deep-sea ecosystem of hydrothermal vents. In fact, through his own collecting and donations from other scientists, he amassed the largest and most diverse collection of marine worms from this environment.