These little segmented worms secrete calcium carbonate to build a permanent protective tube. They attach themselves to any available surface such as rocks, clams or even other tubes of worms. Their fossil record dates back as far as the Silurian Period, 443 million years ago, but today they are quite common worldwide. The worm that lives in the tube is commonly called a feather duster or fan worm with a crown of feathery tentacles that it uses to strain food out of the water. Therein lies the tube worm beauty. Many shells, living and fossilized, are encrusted with feather duster tube worms and sometimes completely overgrows its host with a large mass of tubes.
Tube Worms Can Show Off an Attractive Crown of Feathers
It’s true; they can be real pretty as you’ll notice from the photo samples below and most assuredly they were in the past as well. Today, there are at least two families of tube worms that show off a colorful, attractive crown of feathery plumes. But if you think you can go outside and dig them up in the yard, don’t even try because they are all salt-water marine varieties.
Their fluffy crowns come in many different shapes and arrangements. One type resembles a Christmas tree, while another type looks almost like peacock feathers, as their names suggests. The breakdown of their taxonomy explains a lot about them which I believe you’ll find very interesting.
CLASSIFICATION BREAKDOWN DEMONSTRATES TWO FAMILIES
Phylum: Annelid (means ringed one) Large group of segmented worms from 17,000 species ranging in size from microscopic to 3 meters long
Class: Polychaeta Generally marine group of annelid worms from 10,000 species; Each segment of the creature possesses a pair of outgrowths with bristles which help them hold on to objects. They have a well developed head with two to four eyes and antennas. They can be found worldwide and withstand the coldest and hottest temperatures known on the planet. From this group of annelids, they can be predators, herbivores, filter feeders, scavengers or parasites.
Order: Canalipalpata Bristle-footed or Fan-headed tube worms
Suborder: Sabellida Sedentary marine worms that secrete calcium carbonate tubes
Family 1: Sedentary marine tube worms where the head is mostly concealed by feathery branches. They reinforce their tubes with sand and bits of shell. They tend to be common in the ocean intertidal zones around the world.
See Feather Dusters above from this family: Sabellidae; and below, Sabella, pavonina (Peacock Tube Worm)
Family 2: Serpulidae Differs from family of Sabellidae worms primarily by a specialized operculum, a cone shaped plug that often resembles a trumpet which blocks the tube entrance when the worms withdraw into their tubes i.e. Spirobranchus, giganteus (Christmas Tree Worm)
Genus: Serpula (Can rapidly retract into its tube, is typically red, orange, or pink with transverse white strands. Can be found in shallow intertidal zones to deep depths up to 800 meters deep.
Species: vermicularis (Fan Tube Worm) The tube can be curved but not spiraled.
Below: Genus: Spirobranchus, Species: S. giganteus (Christmas Tree Tube Worm) named for its double spiraled plume of feathers and shape resembling a Christmas tree. They display a wide variety of colors
Interesting Side Note:
A resent scientific study discovered tube worms living in the cold, calm depths in the Gulf of Mexico have surprisingly long life spans, especially compared to their cousins living in hot and active environments, according to a paper published in the February 2000 issue of the journal Nature by a Penn State research team.
The hydrocarbon-seep cold climate tube worms they studied take from 170 to 250 years to grow two meters long, while the hydrothermal-vent hot climate tube worms grow well over a meter in just one year.