An Ugly Underwater Worm That Eats Bones is Named After Jabba the Hutt

Thursday, 10 May 2018 - 6:30PM
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Science of Star Wars
Thursday, 10 May 2018 - 6:30PM
An Ugly Underwater Worm That Eats Bones is Named After Jabba the Hutt
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Since 2002, marine biologist Robert Vrijenhoek has studied a type of bone-eating worm he discovered out near the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Northern California where he works. 

As you can imagine, it's grisly work - he initially came across the worms while examining a dead whale on the seafloor of Monterey Canyon, only to find an entirely colony of the things living in and feasting on the enormous whale bones. This ended up being the first of several different bone-eating worm species researchers would discover across the globe.

Now, Vrijenhoek and Greg Rouse from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are releasing some new findings in Zootaxa, and they've named 14 new species of Osedax (which means bone-eating, naturally). Many of the Osedax species are named after people or ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles) that helped find the wretched worms, but one especially ugly specimen has been named Osedax jabba.

Osedax jabba was specifically named because the worm resembles the tail of everyone's favorite blobby alien crime lord, Jabba the Hutt, from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. You can see it below, pictured right:




These 14 new species of bone-eating worms are being added to the 11 that Vrijenhoek initially uncovered, and they are versatile little monsters. Researchers at MBARI have mostly found them in whales, leading to their less scientific name of "whale worms", but they've tossed other bones like turkey, pig, and cow bones to the seafloor and found that the worms were perfectly content with settling into those skeletons as well.

It's likely because of how easily they can colonize any skeleton - giving it a "shag carpeting" appearance as thousands of them coat the bones - that they've moved all over the world, although they still prefer whales because of how much sustenance a single skeleton will give them. 

Also, another extremely unsettling fun fact about bone-eating worms: when first encountered, the researchers could only find female worms. It wasn't until they examined a female worm that they discovered 50 to 100 tiny males living inside the female, having never developed past the larval stage and existing mostly to provide sperm for reproduction.

Not even Jabba the Hutt was that weird.

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