The Elusive Plumed Worm
By Sam Lucas
Plumed worms (Diopatra cuprea), also known as decorator worms or ornate worms, are a common inhabitant of coastal areas. They are a species of segmented worm, a type of polychaete within the family Onuphidae that lives a benthic, or bottom-dwelling, lifestyle. These worms get their name from their large, plumed gills and elaborate tubes that they create within the sediment.
The tubes function as the worm’s home and are largely composed of polysaccharides (compounds that form starch, glucose, or glycogen). Plumed worms will then secrete a mucus in order to cement sand, shells, algae, or other material that they may acquire from their habitat along the outside of the tube. Depending on the environment that the worm lives in and what is available, the tubes may differ greatly in appearance from one another.
The tip of the tube may extend a few inches above the surface, but the worm is not typically sighted. It has the ability to hide within the tube when disturbed – the tubes can be up to three feet deep! On Sanibel, plumed worm tubes are most commonly spotted at low tide along sand and mud flats or sometimes, washed up in the wrack line.
Plumed worms have a striking appearance – their body is reddish-brown in color and their heads are surrounded by plumed gills, antennae, and large jaws. Surprisingly, these animals prefer a diet of plankton and will scavenge the seafloor for detritus (decomposing plant and animal material).
As you walk along the beach, keep your eyes out for their tubes and take a peek inside. You might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elusive plumed worm!