Friday 6 September 2013


Image: NOAA PMEL Vents Program
Proof that molluscs can worm with the best of them!

Speaking as a human being, I can't help but find molluscs an exceptionally strange group of animals. I don't just mean all those tentacles and eye stalks, I mean the strange fact that a smart-aleck octopus and a slovenly snail are both molluscs. They seem about as different as different can be.

Compare it to arthropods. Sure, all those insects and spiders and lobsters are different from each other, but I can at least imagine them all getting together for an extended-family dinner. Catering would be a nightmare, but at least they could have a grand, old time recounting their very different life experiences.

What could an octopus and a snail possibly talk about?

Image: Arctic Ocean Diversity
Clearly, this is all ignoring the fact that I myself am a chordate, not just a mammal or a vertebrate. I can extend some kind of imaginative hand of understanding to a differently-abled salamander or fish, but it's a lot more difficult to do so with a sea squirt or salp.

Aplacophorans then, are the octopus' tunicate. They're the molluscs that lie beyond a divide that the tentacle of friendship just can't cross. How can an octopus with all its intellect, eyesight and ebullience possibly understand something that found inspiration in the lifestyle of a worm?

Image: G. Rouse
About 320 Aplacophorans have been described so far, but there are probably many more hidden away on the sea floor. Most are only a few centimetres (an inch or two) long, while the smallest are just 1 mm. The biggest ones can reach a length of 30 cm (a foot). I can't be sure, but I have a suspicion that that's horrifying...

There is one thing Aplacophorans and most octopus have in common, and that's the lack of a shell. You might remember the ancient Chitons, who are molluscs clad in a shell made of eight, interlocking parts. They were in a group called polyplacophora, which means "bearer of many plates". Well, here's Aplacophora, "bearer of no plates".

Image: Barwick & Cadien
Aplacophorans aren't completely soft... but they are fuzzy. This peculiar, furry look is achieved by a covering of bristles called spicules, which are embedded in their skin.

Image: Barwick & Cadien
These things are calcified, so they're pretty tough. I'm sure our octopus would have a hard time dealing with all this, but it only gets worse when it's revealed that Aplacophorans lack both eyes and tentacles. I don't even mean octopus tentacles, I mean the little ones snails have on either side of their mouth for feeling things.

"Have you taken leave of your senses?!" rebuked Mr. Octopus.
"Well... yes" replied the Aplacophoran.

There are two groups within Aplacophora: the worm-ones, and the not-quite-as-worm-ones

Image: Barwick & Cadien
Caudofoveata contains the worm-ones. They use their spicules to burrow through the mud until they poke their mouth up through the surface to feed on passing detritus.

Image: M Bright
Solenogasters are somewhat different. They don't burrow since they're carnivores who feed on corals and the like. They don't move much...

Image: NOAA Okeanos Explorer
Aplacophoran besmirches a Bubblegum Coral
So they tend to just hang out on their food. Or coil around it if they're all long and horrible. Along the length of their underside is a long groove which seems to be all that's left of the molluscan foot. It can produce mucus and Solenogasters can even move around on it, they just prefer not to because they're rubbish at moving.

Image: Barwick & Cadien
Many, though not all, Aplacophorans come armed with a radula. This is the tough, toothy tongue other molluscs use to feed. Some Aplacophorans don't bother with it. These body parts are dropping like flies! How terrifying/liberating!

Oh, and of course reproduction consists of dumping their sex cells into the sea. In some species the female keeps the eggs in a cavity in her body, in others they're just cast out and left to somehow not die, hopefully.

Image: Barwick & Cadien
The height of modernity
For a long time it was thought that Aplacophorans might be incredibly ancient molluscs who first arrived before molluscs got their shells, and have since clung to life by the skin of their spicules.

It seems, however, that they're actually quite recent. They evolved from something that had a shell much like a Chiton, and the two groups within Aplacophora may not even be particularly closely related.

Such is the Worm's Path. As you push forward into the illustrious heights of wormdom, those that look on from the outside mistake your innovation for reversion. And, in the end, through great sacrifice and with your own body parts strewn behind you, you finally enter the Hall of Worms. And as you sit with your worm-brothers and worm-sisters, those nay-sayers on the outside cannot even tell you apart.

For you are Worm.


Syeda Rafiya Shehnaz Urdu High school Daulatabad said...

" Aren't they itchy ?

TexWisGirl said...

some look like colorful cheetos. the wormy thanks.

Esther said...

Sometimes I wonder if all species on earth will slowly degenerate to be worm-like creatures.

Other than that, they're adorable! They're apparent fuzziness makes me want to cuddle one. :D

Joseph JG said...

@Ishrat: It looks like they should be! I do wonder how sharp those bristles are.

@TexWisGirl: Yeah, the longer and thinner they are the more nasty they look!

@Esther: What a thought! Maybe when people get bored of the Zombie Apocalypse we could have a worm virus instead.

Lear's Fool said...

I'm in on the wormocalypse! I suppose we know what the reptiles would end up doing, but I'm really looking forward to seeing the mammal-worms and the bird-worms

Zombie apocalypses are boring, get a bunch of hamster wheels hooked up to generators and you've got ironically clean power.

Joseph JG said...

I think Naked Mole Rats are at least halfway to mammal-worm already!

Zombies as a power source, yes! All you need is a brain dangling on a piece of string from a stick and they'll be extremely useful!