Polychaete worms are common in the marine environment, living in just about every habitat ranging from the seashores, to the open ocean, the deep sea, next to boiling hot hydrothermal vents, or even on mounds of methane ice. The type of polychaete worms which most people are familiar with are beachworms and sandworms that live inside sand or mud burrows on the seashore, and are often collected by anglers who use them as bait for fishing. But the polychaete worm that is featured in today's post does not live in sand burrows - instead, it has evolved to live inside another polychaete worm, wearing them almost like someone wearing a mascot costume.
|Endovermis seisuiae inside its scaleworm (Lepidonotus sp.) host (from Fig. 1 of the paper)|
Endovermis seisuiae is very appropriately named since "Endovermis" basically means "inside worm". There are only 19 other species of polychaete worms that are known to have evolved this macabre life-style, and most of them belong to either the Oenonidae family or the Dorvilleidae family. But Endovermis hails from the Phyllodocidae family, a group of polychaete worms which are mostly free-living predators, or dwell in tubes which have been vacated by tubeworms.
But Endovermis has taken this lifestyle to a truly galaxy brain direction - why settle for living in a tube created by another polychaete worm, when you can live inside the polychaete worm itself? The hosts of this parasitic polychaete are scaleworms, which are polychaete worms known for having iridescent scales. In this study, the researchers found E. seisuiae living inside of two species - Aphrodita sp. and Lepidonotus sp. - both were located at over 200 metres below sea level off the coast of the Wakayama Prefecture in Japan.
Endovermis can grow alarmingly large in comparison with its host. The two parasitised scale worms which the researchers found were 14 mm and 27 mm long, while the Endovermis living in each of them grew to 13 mm and 21 mm long respectively (depending on the host species). In both scale worms, Endovermis grew to be about as long as the host itself, though the scaleworm hosts have wider bodies than the parasites. So it is a very cosy fit for the parasite, and it takes up substantial room in the host. In fact, those scaleworms caught the researchers' attention in the first place because they noticed something squirming around inside their body cavity. This size parity between Endovermis to its scaleworm host would be like if you find out that there is a whippet living inside the body of a greyhound.
So how does a worm like that get inside a host which isn't that much bigger than itself? There were no obvious scars on the body of the scaleworm as you would expect if a full-size Endovermis had simply tunnelled its way into the host's body. Since Endovermis produces tiny eggs which are only about 0.1 mm wide, the researchers suggested that it might enter the host as a microscopic larva, drifting into their body via the nephridial canals - which are the equivalent of kidneys in some invertebrate animals. Once inside, it would sit in the body cavity, feeding on the host's body fluids or even internal organs, and eventually getting to be almost as big as the host itself.
In nature, sometimes you get surprise bonus content for a worm - which is also another worm. Simply more worm for your worm.
Jimi, N., Kimura, T., Ogawa, A., & Kajihara, H. (2021). Alien worm in worm: a new genus of endoparasitic polychaete (Phyllodocidae, Annelida) from scale worms (Aphroditidae and Polynoidae, Annelida). Systematics and Biodiversity 19: 13-21.