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British Beasts | Spaghetti Worms

Spaghetti (or terebellid) worms are easily overlooked as part of the sea bed, but like many of our inconspicuous marine creatures, are quite fascinating when you get to know them

Strawberry and sandmason worms are probably the most common of the 50 or so British spaghetti worms. The ‘spaghetti’ is often the only clue that there is an amazing creature beneath – it’s a shame strawberry worms stay hidden, but their plump, delicate bodies do need protection from predators. The tentacles, attached to the worm’s head, are sensitive, withdrawing rapidly if touched. Beneath them are spectacular tufts of blood-red gills. The body tapers towards the tail, and is divided into hundreds of segments, each with pairs of little spines that grip the tube, acting as crampons so the worm can move, ‘pumping’ to refresh the sea water. 

Watch those sticky tentacles and you will see them constantly roaming the sea bed for food. Particles are carried down a groove towards the mouth, where it is partly sorted before being swallowed. I have watched strawberry worm tentacles creeping across the face, mouth and even the eyes of an eel in an aquarium, apparently ‘cleaning’ it, while the eel remained completely motionless. Spaghetti worms are skilled builders, selecting sand grains and shell fragments, and cementing them with mucus into tube homes. They attach their tubes along one side to a hard surface, usually the underside of a stone for further protection – an effective hideaway. The sandmason worm’s tubes, up to 45cm long, are buried vertically in the sand, with just the top 5cm sticking out. This bit is very elaborate, like a little tree with many tiny branches. 

Most spaghetti worms spawn vast numbers of eggs and sperm into the water each summer, the resultant larvae settling quickly on the sea bed and relying on their supplies of yolk for food. The larvae need a suitable surface, preferably another worm tube, to settle before they will develop into an adult worm. 

Sandmason worms are abundant in places, forming dense mini-forests. These help to make the sea bed more suitable for other small animals, creating good feeding grounds for flatfish and wading birds. The worms’ gritty tubes are generally good protection, but one small sea slug has worked out how to eat them. When an acteon (Acteon tornatilis) finds a sandmason worm, it burrows to find the end of the tube, grabs the worm’s tail and proceeds to chomp from the tail up, taking up to two hours to finish its meal. Worm sushi – how delightful!

 

beast at a glance

SANDMASON WORM: Lanice conchilega STRAWBERRY WORM: Eupolymnia nebulosa  

KNOWN HAUNTS: The strawberry worm lives under stones and in rock crevices, and is most abundant in sheltered places. The sandmason worm lives in sea beds of sand, muddy sand and gravel.

BEST PLACE TO SEE: 
All around Britain.

LIKELY TO APPEAR: Present all year. 

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: Spaghetti worms have a cluster of long, pale tentacles at the head end, hence their name. Strawberry worms have bright orange-red bodies with white dots. The sandmason worm’s tube of sand grains has a much-branched, tree-like crown that protrudes about 5cm above the sea bed. 

SIZE: How long is a piece of elastic? The body of a strawberry worm is around 15cm long, while the highly elastic tentacles can stretch to several times the body length. Sandmason worms can grow to 30cm long.

 

 

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