SAN JOSE, Calif. – The only good whale is a dead whale – at least from the standpoint of two of the weirdest creatures known to science, which make a living devouring whale bones on the floor of Monterey Bay in California.

They’re worms, but they look almost like plants, sending roots deep into whale skeletons to suck out nutritious fats and oils. They’re full of bacteria that help them digest this bounty.

And the female worms, which are an inch or two long, harbor dozens of microscopic males inside their bodies – 111 of them, in one case. The males are little more than sacks of sperm. They have no way to eat, but live off scraps of yolk left from the eggs that hatched them; when it runs out, they die.

It may be that worm larvae that land on bones develop into females, while those that land on female worms develop into males, said Robert C. Vrijenhoek, an evolutionary biologist and geneticist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute who led the team that discovered the worms. But that’s pure speculation.

“It is definitely the strangest animal I’ve ever seen,” said Craig Smith, a biological oceanographer at the University of Hawaii and an authority on the bizarre communities of animals that spring up on whale remains.

The two new species of worms, each topped by feathery red plumes, are described in today’s issue of the journal Science. They were found on the carcass of a young gray whale that sank to the bottom of Monterey Canyon in nearly 9,500 feet of water. When scientists found it in February 2002, most of the meat was gone, but the skeleton, intestines and some of the skin and fins were still intact.

They’ve been visiting the remains every few months, using a robotic submersible to take pictures and samples.

Vrijenhoek said his team stumbled onto the carcass while looking for clams in Monterey Bay.

“What struck us immediately is that any exposed bones, like the rib bones that were sticking up, were covered with a carpet of these red worms,” he said.

The two new worm species, which belong to a new genus called Osedax – meaning “bone-devouring” – are distant relatives of the tube worms found around hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, Vrijenhoek said. But they are the only ones that contain bacteria that help them digest fats and oils, he said. The fact that there are so many more male worms than females is also surprising; in most animals the reverse is true.

There are more surprises to come, Vrijenhoek said.

He said the team has found at least three other new worms on the carcass. “Then we have this little pink thing,” about as big as a comma, he said. So far, the researchers have not found a match for its DNA among any of the known animals. But he suspects, in the end, that the pink thing will be a worm, too.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.