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These ‘Elvis Worms’ Shimmer and Sparkle—and Fight Rough

New research describes four species of iridescent deep-sea creatures that sparkle like bedazzled Elvis Presley jumpsuits

(Greg Rouse via Scripps Institution of Oceanography)
smithsonianmag.com

Shimmering in lavender, blue, orange and pink, deep-sea dwelling "Elvis worms" sport shiny scales that resemble the sequined jumpsuits worn by their namesake: rock 'n' roll icon Elvis Presley.

This month, a team of researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego described four new species of the worms in a paper in the scientific journal ZooKeys.

The team used DNA sequencing to place the worms in the Peinaleopolynoe genus, a group of scale worms distantly related to earthworms, per a statement. The researchers dubbed the newly classified species P. goffrediae, after marine biologist Shana Goffredi; P. mineoi, after the donors who helped fund the research; and P. orphanae, named for geobiologist Victoria Orphan. The fourth species’ shimmery pink and gold scales earned it the name P. elvisi, a tribute to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Using the manned research submarine Alvin and remotely operated vehicles, the team collected worm specimens from the bottom of the eastern Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and near Costa Rica. They discovered many worms feasting on the fallen carcasses of whales and along hydrothermal vents, reports Nala Rogers at Inside Science.

“[The worms] looked beautiful and iridescent. And there was a lot of shading in their colors,” Avery Hatch, a doctoral student at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lead author on the study, tells Gary Robbins at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

These worms don’t have eyes to see their own scales, and it’s pitch-black on the ocean floor anyways, Robbins reports. Researchers collected the worms at or below 3,281 feet—too deep for sunlight to penetrate. Scientists have yet to parse what—if any—function the worms’ iridescent scales serve, according to Inside Science.

Researchers also recorded a surprising, previously unrecorded behavior: a battle between two P. orphanae worms. Scientists were observing the worms when they started fighting one another, Maria Temming reports for Science News. “Suddenly, they started doing this amazing jitterbugging — wiggling, and then fighting and biting each other [on their scales]” says Greg Rouse, a marine biologist and a co-author on the study. “No one’s ever seen any behavior like this in scale worms.”

This observed behavior helps explains why the scales of P. orphanae specimens bore scrapes and other signs of damage, according to the researchers. “For several years, it was a mystery as to why the scales of P. orphanae specimens were often drastically damaged, and we reasoned that it may have occurred during the collection process,” Hatch says in the statement. “Now that we have observed the entertaining in situ fighting behavior of P. orphanae, we understand that these animals are actually biting off chunks of one another’s scales.”

Victoria Orphan, the biologist and namesake of the fighting worms, observed the two creatures duking it out in real time. “I had seen them as these sort of passive, cute worms,” she tells Inside Science. “But they actually were taking chunks out of each other.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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