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, and 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 tubeworm beauty. Many shells, living and fossilized, are encrusted with feather duster tubeworms and sometimes they completely over shadow their hosts with a large mass of crusty 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 likely true in the past as well. Today, there are at least of tubeworms that show off a colorful, attractive crown of feathery plumes. But if you think you can go outside and dig them up, you would be sadly mistaken because they are all salt-water marine varieties. A breakdown of their taxonomy explains a lot about them which you should 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 onto 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: Sabellidae (Two Photo Examples Shown Above) 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.
Family 2: Serpulidae (Two Photo Examples Shown Below) Differs Family 1 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 (two examples shown below with trumpet-like operculum visible)
The Red Tubeworm (Serpula, vermicularis) shown below 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. The tube can be curved but not spiraled.
The Christmas Tree Tubeworm (Spirobranchus, giganteus) shown below is named for its double spiraled plume of feathers and shape resembling a Christmas tree. They display a wide variety of colors.
Interesting Side Note:
According to a paper published in the February, 2000 issue of the journal, Nature, by a Penn State research team, tubeworms living in the cold, calm depths in the Gulf of Mexico have surprisingly long life spans, especially compared to their cousins living in hot, active environments. Apparently, the cold climate tubeworms 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.