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Science for Kids exclusive: 'Worm wizard,' Dr. Shana Goffredi

Inspecting mud volcanoes is all part of the job for Dr. Shana K. Goffredi of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

What Would Kids Ask?

Deep beneath Monterey Bay, California, weird worms topped with bright red, feathery "hats" gorge themselves at a whalebone buffet. The red-topped female worms, as long as your pointer finger and as thick as a pencil, carry tiny male worms inside them and use bacteria to digest whalebone. Leonard Long, 10, of Lafayette Elementary School in Washington, DC, and his cousin, Lania Hendrix, 12, of Bitburg, Germany, wanted to know why. So, they called Dr. Shana K. Goffredi of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, co-author of a worm study that appeared 30 July 2004 in the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

Here's what Dr. Goffredi told Leonard, Lania and a moderator from AAAS:

Q: MODERATOR: What do children around the world need to know about these weird worms?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: The first, most important thing that children should know about this type of research is that there are many, many unusual animals in the ocean, still waiting to be discovered! These particular worms are very strange because they are living on a dead whale at the bottom of the ocean, and there aren't too many animals that can take advantage of that type of habitat. Also, these worms have no mouth and no gut, so they have teamed up with bacteria that live inside their tissues and break food down for them. That arrangement is called "symbiosis," and it's important for the functioning of many creatures on Earth.

A male Osedax frankpressi that is 0.2 mm long. It has sperm filling the middle part of the body and still also some yolk around the margins. Image © Greg Rouse.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Q: LANIA: How long do these worms live?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: We still don't know exactly how long they live. We're using a robot-driven submersible vehicle to look at their environment on the deep-sea floor. This underwater canyon where the worms live is right behind where I work. We've been looking at these worms for four years, so we know they live at least that long. We expect they may live 10 to 20 years. They can only live as long as the whale bones are there to provide food. It takes maybe 10 to 50 years before the bones are completely decayed.

Q: LEONARD: How often is a new species discovered?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: That's a very good question! Worldwide, it's hard to say. But, here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, we discover new species probably once a month. There are so many unusual animals on the sea floor and in the "mid-water" above the sea floor.

Q: LANIA: Do these worms only eat off whale carcasses?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: Yes. We believe, based on their body shape or "morphology," that they only feed off whale carcasses. We can't be sure because it's possible that they may change or evolve as they grow up and move from place to place, to take advantage of a new environment. But, they have roots that they use to penetrate the bones of the whales. We think that means they feed only on whales.

A watercolor painting showing females and males from both new, marine worm species. The female worms are illustrated both in their tubes and with a whalebone “cutaway” to reveal their large ovisacs and extensive roots that invade the bone. The small males live in the tubes of the females and are shown as “blowups” with their relative positions in the tubes indicated by the dark lines. Top left: male Osedax rubiplumus. Top right: female Osedax rubiplumus. Bottom left: male Osedax frankpressi. Bottom right: female Osedax frankpressi. Image © Greg Rouse, painting by Howard Hamon.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Q: LEONARD: How much of a whale does the group of worms eat?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: Boy, that's hard to estimate! They're pretty hungry. They eat quite a bit of it. But, more importantly, these worms are responsible for the decomposition of the entire whale, which makes more of it available to all the other animals in the environment, too. So, they have a big job in the food chain.

Q: LANIA: Is it true that the male worms only survive inside the female worms?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: Yes, that's what we think. We know little about the reproduction of these worms. But, we see 50 to 100 males living inside the tube-shaped female worms. The males' only job is to fertilize the females' eggs.

Q: LANIA: If the female worm has too many males inside her, can she die?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: I'm not positive, but Mother Nature probably has designed it so there are never too many males inside a female. There's probably some sort of natural competition among the males. Also, the males are very small -- microscopic -- and the females can be the width of a pencil. So, I don't think the females could die from overcrowding by males.

Q: LEONARD: Can tube worms live anywhere other than a whale carcass?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: The whale worms are part of a group or family of worms called "Vestimentiferans." Their relatives can live in other very special environments where no other animals can live – like, under sea volcanoes, or certain areas of Monterey Canyon, where there are chemicals seeping through the sea floor that would kill most other creatures. These tube worms can take advantage of those environments.

Q: LEONARD: How many whales die each year?

A: GOFFREDI: Some scientists have tried to estimate whale deaths, but it's hard to say for sure. We think it happens frequently. Lots of whales die during migration because it's hard on the young ones. They travel thousands of miles, all the way from Mexico, through Monterey Bay, to the Arctic. Many whales may die during migration, but only in these specific corridors where they travel. That's where we find whale carcasses.

The manipulator arm of MBARI's remotely operated vehicle Tiburon picking up a whale rib that is covered with Osedax frankpressi. Image © Greg Rouse.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Q: MODERATOR: How did it feel to discover the first-ever deep-sea worm that eats whalebones? Did you jump up and down?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: [She laughs.] Yes, I guess, a little bit! I was part of a team of scientists on a ship, using a robot-controlled submersible, when we saw the first images of these bright red worms on a whale carcass. But, we didn't know what they were right away. We had to take the specimens back to the lab and work with many other scientists in Australia and other places. As we learned more and more, sure, there were a bunch of moments when we were excited enough to jump up and down.

Q: MODERATOR: How did you first become interested in science, and what is your advice to young people like Lania and Leonard?

A: DR. GOFFREDI: I always collected bugs in my backyard, so I became interested in backyard biology. I came from Colorado to the West Coast of the United States and then became interested in marine biology. If you are interested in science, you can definitely make it a career. My job is so much fun. It's like playing in a sandbox, everyday. Field work -- looking at different species in the ocean -- takes up about 20 percent of my job. I also spend a lot of time in the laboratory, and I talk to young people and others.


This research appeared 30 July 2004 in the journal Science, online at http://www.sciencemag.org. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society. (See http://www.aaas.org.) Download a PDF of the paper by Rouse et. al.


  • Look for Science for Kids features on the EurekAlert! Web site, http://www.eurekalert.org/kidsnews, and be sure to check out EurekAlert!'s marine science portal, too, at http://www.eurekalert.org/marinescience/.

  • To listen to the National Public Radio (NPR) report on this research, go to http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=3806235.

  • To read more on MSNBC.com, go to http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5549064/

  • Or, take a look at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute at http://www.mbari.org/.

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