Fishermen in Taiwan recently spotted a giant, bright-green worm waggling what looks like a pink tongue and posted a video of it online last week. The footage has since gone viral.
The creature in question is a type of nemertean, or ribbon worm, called Lineus fuscoviridis, says Jon Norenburg, chair of invertebrate zoology at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C.
This harmless species ranges from Japan to the Philippines and is fairly common in tropical coastal waters, he says. The animal in the video "probably crawled out of something brought out of the water," Norenburg explains, like a porous rock, a large clump of seaweed, or even an old tire. (Read about the "devil worm," the deepest-living animal found.)
The Lineus group is known for its large members, says John McDermott, an invertebrate zoologist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "This type of worm could be two meters, about six feet, long," he says.
There are about 1,100 species of ribbon worm in the world, and most, but not all, live in the ocean.
So what about that pink thing writhing around on the dock in the video?
It's a proboscis, one of the defining features of this group of ribbon worms.
The tongue-like organ can shoot out to capture prey—and in certain species, it's sticky and will entangle a clam, sea slug, or another worm. The ribbon worm will then engulf its victim whole.
In some instances, Norenburg says, ribbon worms can swallow sea slugs three to four times fatter than themselves. "These worms are even better than pythons in this regard."
Some species anesthetize their prey so that the worm can then eat the immobilized animal from the inside out, McDermott explains. Yet another group of ribbon worms inject poison into their victims with a modified proboscis.(Read about other things that marine worms eat, including bone.)
As for the proboscis in the video, it was probably part of a last-ditch defense by the animal after sensing it was on dry land rather than in the ocean, says Norenburg.
This worm-out-of-water wouldn't last long on land. They move with the help of a mucus coating, but they need seawater as a lubricant, Norenburg explains.
"The mucus [on the animal in the video] is drying just the way saliva dries in a person’s mouth in the absence of adequate moisture."
Who knows what the ocean will deliver next?
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