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Whale skeleton orange polychaete

Leslie H. Harris lhharris at rcf-fs.usc.edu
Wed Mar 15 19:32:17 EST 2000

Geoff & everyone - 

The worm in question is a chrysopetalid, close to Vigtorniella Kisseleva 
1996. I   was lucky enough to run into Craig Smith when we were both at 
MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) last year.  He was 
carrying around a vial of the worms, hoping to find someone who could 
identify them, and a copy of the video.  The video footage is incredible. 
The worms attach themselves by a few anterior parapodia to the bones.  (I 
assumed the attached parapodia are the anteriormost but the quality of the 
video wasn't good enough for me to be certain.)  Most of the body is free, 
hanging straight down, & swaying with the current. They are very tightly 
packed together and as a whole really do look just like a shag carpet. 
These worms are fairly large for a chrysopetalid, up to 50 x 5 mm, with 
flacid, fragile bodies.   

The original specimens of Vigtorniella zaikai (Kisseleva) were cultured in 
the lab from pelagic larvae caught in the Black Sea.  The larvae can spend 
an extended time in the plankton due to yolk reserves & limited uptake of 
detritus; they can exist at hydrogen sulfide concentrations of 0.25 ml/liter & 
an oxygen minimum of 0.06 ml/liter. Settled nektochaetes & adults have 
been found at 117-151 m in the oxic-anoxic interface of the Black Sea.  
Settling density is very high, up to 6500-9150 ind/m2 at some depths.  
Sounds like a perfect organism to take advantage of a whale-fall, as the 
bones & surrounding sediment are covered with mats of sulfide bacteria.  
More information on V. zakai can be found at:  


Thomas Dahlgren has been very generous in sharing his notes on 
Vigtorniella & chrysopetalids in general.  I am sending specimens to 
Thomas of both this whale-worm, and a second form also found on a whale-

>Does anyone know what species this quote refers to? 
>It would be interesting to see a photo of these worms in situ.    
>"Smith [Craig R. Smith, U. Hawai'i] and his colleagues are intrigued by the 
>creatures that are attracted to whale corpses. One organism, a big, orange 
>polychaete worm that looks like a furry centipede, can be found in such 
>numbers around whale skeletons that one researcher says it looks like the 
>bones are covered with a orange shag carpet."   

Leslie H. Harris
Collection Manager, 
LACM-Allan Hancock Foundation Polychaete Collection  tel: 213) 763-3234
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History	fax: 213) 746-2999
900 Exposition Boulevard		       email: lhharris at bcf.usc.edu
Los Angeles, California 90007 U.S.A.

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