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These ‘zombie worms’ feed on bones deep in the ocean

Updated Sep 26th, 2022 5:15PM EDT
deep ocean with light coming in
Image: donfiore / Adobe

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Scientists have confirmed the existence of a terrifying zombie worm that lives at the bottom of the deep sea. The worm, officially called Osedax, was originally believed to be a plant; however, scientists were left in shock when a deep-diving robot brought up samples of the specimen. The “plant” was instead a zombie worm that feeds on the bones of animal carcasses that sink to the bottom of the sea.

Meet the zombie worms that live at the bottom of the sea

zombie worms feast on a whale skeletonImage source: MBARI / YouTube

Once they knew that the zombie worms existed, scientists started looking for them more. Because they’d been found on bodies of dead animals at the bottom of the sea, they drug whale carcasses and other dead animals out and sank them to the bottom. Then, they waited weeks, months, and even years before returning and dragging them out.

Greg Rouse, a member of the team working with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says that wherever they put bones, the worms appeared. Rouse was also one of the original team members that found and described Osedax.

So far, scientists have discovered 30 different species of zombie worms worldwide. These species include the Osedax fenrisi, first found near a hydrothermal vent in the Arctic. There’s also the bone-eating snot flower, which was first found near Sweden. Everywhere that the scientists look, they continue to find these bone-eating creatures.

The worms also seem to vary in size, just as they vary in type. Some are the length of a pinky finger, and some are smaller than an eyelash. Scientists say that the ones usually visible to the naked eye are females. The male zombie worms appear to be smaller and don’t eat bones.

The worms also seem to live in “harems” of tens or hundreds inside of a female’s mucous tube. There, they wait for her eggs to emerge so they can fertilize them. When the males run out of energy, they die completely. Even still, another species of the zombie worms does things differently, scientists say.

Instead of living within the females themselves, those males scrounge around on the bones of carcasses until they find females. Then, they deliver the sperm they have kept stored in their heads to the female worms, fertilizing their eggs.

There’s no doubt that this entire species is intriguing and somewhat terrifying. The next time you think about how awesome it would be to go deep-sea exploring, just think about the thousands of zombie worms that call the bottom of the sea floor home, just waiting on a new set of bones to munch upon. If that doesn’t intrigue you, maybe this freakish, eight-foot-long sea creature will.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.