Acid-Drenched, Corpse-Eating Bone Worms Exist

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED April 30, 2013
A female Osedax with an exposed 'root' system, which secretes acid to penetrate into the bone. Credit: Greg Rouse An Osedax worm secretes acid to penetrate bone. (Greg Rouse/Scripps)

If you’ve ever watched  “Frozen Planet,” then you know a dead whale makes for quite the seafloor ecosystem. Various scavengers move in to claim a share of the spoils — including the mouthless, gutless Osedax worms that long exclusively for the delicious taste of bone.

How do they do it? How do they break into the bone vault for all those nutrients? Thanks to a new study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, we have an answer.

According to researchers Martín Tresguerres, Sigrid Katz, and Greg Rouse, the creature pumps out bone-melting acid to tunnel its way in after delicious collagen and lipids. But here’s where it gets even more amazing: According to Tresguerres, this process is very similar to how mammals repair and remodel bones, only in reverse.

The next step for the researchers? Gaining a better understanding of how they absorb the bone nutrients they unlock — a goal they’ll pursue in collaboration with the  Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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