The Terrifying Bobbit Worm

No 66

The Bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois) usually stays out of sight. It can grow up to ten feet in length. When its body catches the light, it shimmers, rainbow-colored, like a soap bubble. But most of the time, the worm lies coiled beneath the sand and gravel of the ocean floor. All that can be seen is a few protruding inches of its segmented body, and five antennae swaying in the water. It waits.

When a fish swims overhead, the worm senses movement. Its long body is exposed in a flash. It strikes. The worm pops a feeding apparatus, or pharynx, out of its throat, like the finger of a glove turned inside out. The pharynx is sharp—it can slice a fish in half. The worm stabs its prey, then uses its strong jaws to make sure the fish can't escape. It brings the scaly pieces back down into its burrow. The sand heaves as the worm eats. No one knows exactly what happens beneath the seafloor—some scientists suspect that the Bobbit worm doses the fish with a toxin to kill it or knock it out. After a time the worm emerges again, poking a few inches of its long body up from the ocean floor.

The Bobbit worm is the stuff of nightmares. A children's book names it one of the sea's most “terrifying and ugly" animals. It is found only in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region, where it haunts reef sites such as Anilao, in the Philippines. Like all good monsters, though, it's been known to show up in expected places. A baby Bobbit worm, still small, can travel undetected on the “live rocks” that sometimes end up in coral aquariums—and quietly grow to adult size in your living room.

Credits

  • Text - Sally Helm
  • Cinematography - Nannette Van Antwerp
  • Sound Design - Josh Wilson
  • Illustration - Maria Hooper
  • Title Design - Christie Little

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