The gossamer worm: An effective and elegant swimmer

Unlike its bottom-dwelling kin, the gossamer worm (Tomopteris sp.) lives in constant motion. This ethereal worm is a graceful swimmer that “dances” through the midwater with the rhythmic paddling of its swimming legs. This summer, MBARI researchers collaborated with scientists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to reveal this worm’s swimming behavior in detail. Leveraging observations recorded in the depths of Monterey Bay by MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles and high-speed video and sophisticated laser illumination of specimens in the laboratory, the research team closely examined the mechanics of the gossamer worm’s swimming. They learned that a flexible body plan allows this worm to combine two different modes of propulsion to achieve effective—and elegant—swimming. This makes Tomopteris especially interesting for engineers. In the future, this worm could inspire new designs for everything from underwater propulsion to medical technology.

Scientists have described about 60 species of gossamer worm. Most gossamer worms are transparent—an adaptation that allows them to hide in plain sight from both predators and prey. Most are only a few centimeters in length, but the largest are more than 60 centimeters (two feet) long, including their long extendable tails. Despite these dramatic differences in size, and thus how they experience the water they swim through, all gossamer worms are fast and effective swimmers.

The Pompeii worm is an extremophile

Instead of being devastated by volcano-like conditions, these worms thrive in the scalding hot, mineral-rich waters at deep-sea vents.