Posted by: Bystander PJ2 JUN 2011
Having an interest in botany, I was intrigued recently to come across a vague reference to the “bone-eating snot flower”. But it turns out that this organism is not a flower at all. It is a recently discovered marine worm that has been given the binomial Osedax mucofloris. This name has been jokingly Englished as bone-eating snot flower, although a more accurate translation would be slimy-flowered bone-eater.
Osedax is a strange genus of worm that feed off the bones of whale carcasses. The first species was discovered as recently as 2002, when it was found to have bored into the skeleton of a rotting grey whale at a depth of almost 3km in Monterey Bay, off the Californian coast.
Osedax worms have feathery plumes that absorb oxygen from the water and root-like structures that absorb nutrient from the bones. Lacking a digestive system, the worms rely on symbiotic bacteria to process the fats and oils in the whale bones and release nutrients for them to absorb.
The boring worms are all female, but inside each female are dozens of microscopic males. These do not grow beyond the larval stage but nevertheless become sexually mature and fertilise the eggs that the female continually produces.
Since 2002, researchers have discovered more than a dozen other Osedax species at great depth in Monterey Bay. But in 2005 marine biologists from London’s Natural History Museum and Sweden’s Göteborg University made a striking discovery in the North Sea. While monitoring the decay of a minke whale carcass at a depth of only 120m, they were astounded to discover a large colony of a new Osedax species. They named it Osedax mucofloris because its flower-like plumes were encased in a ball of mucus, probably as a defence mechanism.
Unfortunately, the hunting of whales almost to extinction over the past couple of centuries means that Osedax worms are losing their food source. Further research is urgently needed if they are to avoid joining the many animals that have become extinct as a result of mankind’s activities.