Bone eating worms dined on marine reptile carcasses

April 14, 2015
Worm higgs. Credit: © Nick Higgs

A species of bone-eating worm that was believed to have evolved in conjunction with whales has been dated back to prehistoric times when it fed on the carcasses of giant marine reptiles.

Scientists at Plymouth University found that Osedax - popularised as the 'zombie worm' - originated at least 100 million years ago, and subsisted on the bones of prehistoric reptiles such as plesiosaurs and .

Reporting in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters this month, the research team at Plymouth reveal how they found tell-tale traces of Osedax on plesiosaur fossils held in the Sedgwick Museum at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Nicholas Higgs, a Research Fellow in the Marine Institute, said the discovery was important for both understanding the genesis of the species and its implications for fossil records. "The exploration of the deep sea in the past decades has led to the discovery of hundreds of new species with unique adaptations to survive in extreme environments, giving rise to important questions on their origin and evolution through geological time." said Nicholas. "The unusual adaptations and striking beauty of Osedax worms encapsulate the alien nature of deep-sea life in public imagination.

"And our discovery shows that these bone-eating worms did not co-evolve with whales, but that they also devoured the skeletons of large that dominated oceans in the age of the dinosaurs. Osedax, therefore, prevented many skeletons from becoming fossilised, which might hamper our knowledge of these extinct leviathans."

The finger-length Osedax is found in oceans across the globe at depths of up to 4,000m, and it belongs to the Siboglinidae family of worms, which, as adults, lack a mouth and digestive system. Instead, they penetrate bone using root-like tendrils through which they absorb bone collagen and lipids that are then converted into energy by bacteria inside the worm.

Typically they consume whale bones, prompting many scientists to believe that they co-evolved 45 million years ago, branching out from their cousins that used chemosysnthesis to obtain food.

But Nicholas, and research lead Dr Silvia Danise, of Plymouth's School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, studied fossil fragments taken from a plesiosaur unearthed in Cambridge, and a sea turtle found in Burham, Kent.

Using a computed tomography scanner at the Natural History Museum - essentially a three-dimensional X-ray - they were able to create a computer model of the bones, and found tell-tale bore holes and cavities consistent with the burrowing technique of Osedax.

Dr Danise said: "The increasing evidence for Osedax throughout the oceans past and present, combined with their propensity to rapidly consume a wide range of vertebrate skeletons, suggests that Osedax may have had a significant negative effect on the preservation of marine vertebrate skeletons in the fossil record.

"By destroying vertebrate skeletons before they could be buried, Osedax may be responsible for the loss of data on marine vertebrate anatomy and carcass-fall communities on a global scale. The true extent of this 'Osedax effect', previously hypothesized only for the Cenozoic, now needs to be assessed for Cretaceous marine vertebrates."

Explore further: Bone-eating 'zombie' worms can no longer hide

More information: The paper, Mesozoic origin for the bone-eating Osedax worms, is available in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters: rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2015.0072

Related Stories

Bone-eating 'zombie' worms can no longer hide

October 31, 2011

Bone-eating 'zombie' worms may be good at keeping out of sight, living off dead whales in the darkness of the sea floor, but scientists have found out how to detect them, even if there’s no trace of their bodies or a ...

Mystery of 'zombie worm' development unveiled

March 12, 2013

How do bone-eating worms reproduce? A new study by Norio Miyamoto and colleagues from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology sheds light on this question through a detailed observation of the postembryonic ...

Bone-munching worms found on sea floor

August 14, 2013

Scientists said Wednesday they had discovered two new species of a strange bone-devouring worm thriving in the mysterious waters that surround the Antarctic continent.

Deep-sea worms eat found to eat fish bones

April 14, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new study led by a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is painting a more complete picture of an extraordinary sea worm that makes its living in the depths of the ocean on the ...

Recommended for you

Cow gene study shows why most clones fail

December 9, 2016

It has been 20 years since Dolly the sheep was successfully cloned in Scotland, but cloning mammals remains a challenge. A new study by researchers from the U.S. and France of gene expression in developing clones now shows ...

Blueprint for shape in ancient land plants

December 9, 2016

Scientists from the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge have unlocked the secrets of shape in the most ancient of land plants using time-lapse imaging, growth analysis and computer modelling.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.