Other Names: Beard worm Scientific Name: Riftia pachyptila Size Range: Up to 8 feet long Habitat: Pacific Ocean Depth Range: Over 5,000 feet
Giant Tube Worm (Riftia pachyptila)
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These giant tube worms grow up to eight feet (over two meters) in length and have no mouth and no digestive tract. They depend on bacteria that live inside them for their food. This type of mutually beneficial relationship between two organisms is known as symbiosis. The bacteria actually convert the chemicals from the hydrothermal vents into organic molecules that provide food for the worm.
Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of these worms is their bright red plume. This is a specialized organ used for exchanging compounds such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulphide with the seawater. The bright red color comes from the presence of large amounts of hemoglobin (blood). It is this plume that provides nutrients to the bacteria that live inside the worm. The outer tube of the worm is made from a tough, natural substance called chitin. Chitin is also the main component in the exoskeletons of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. Although the worms have no eyes, they can sense movement and vibrations and will retreat into their protective tubes when threatened.
Giant tube worms reproduce by releasing their eggs into the water to be fertilized. After hatching, the young larvae swim down and attach themselves to rocks. As the larvae develop into tiny worms, they temporarily develop a primitive mouth and gut through which the symbiotic bacteria enter. As the worm grows older, the mouth and gut disappear, trapping the bacteria inside.
Giant tube worms have been found throughout the Pacific Ocean where deep sea hydrothermal vents have been discovered. The average depth of these vents is 5,000 feet (1,500 meters). Entire communities of shrimps and crabs have been found living around these giants. It is believed that these invertebrates feed by nibbling off bits of the tube worms" red plumes. As amazing as these vent ecosystems are, they are also extremely fragile. As the Earth"s crust shifts due to geothermal activity, the supply of chemicals through the vents can be cut off. When this happens, all of the incredible creatures that depend on these chemicals will wither and die. Scientists have returned to once thriving vent sites only to find them completely cold and dead. But the cycle begins again when new hydrothermal vents begin to grow elsewhere on the deep sea floor.
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