July 1st, 2015 was the first EVER International Polychaete Day, celebrating the work of Kristian Fauchald, a scientist who worked all over the world and in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology (IZ) at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Kristian dedicated his professional life to studying polychaetes, and so IZ (and scientists around the world) celebrated this day, which would have been his 80th birthday, by sharing wonderful worms (in jars, in photos, and even live) with museum visitors.
Everyone from wide-eyed kids to curious adults were intrigued by these worms, their interactions going from “Gross, Eww" to "Wow! That’s cool!” I have to admit even when I saw the meter long specimen in a jar I was a bit squeamish, but after talking to the volunteers at the carts I could appreciate it despite its seemingly endless appendages. This event helped open the eyes of many visitors to truly appreciate the magnificence of polychaetes.
A polychaete is a segmented worm with numerous bristles (chaetae) running the length of its body in the class Polychaeta, phylum Annelida. [Editor's note: all the early diverging lineages within Annelida are polychaetes, making it pretty clear that all annelid worms, including earth worms and leeches, are descended from polychaete ancestors.] Polychaetes range from only a few millimeters to multiple meters long as adults, and are marine worms (some species are found in freshwaters as well) that are found in nearly all marine environments. There are approximately 8,000 species known, but more are likely to be found. There are still plenty of regions in the ocean, particularly the deep sea, that need more exploration. Also, recent genetic work that has revealed that many polychaetes previously seen as one species based on their morphology are actually multiple, distinct species. These worms are tough, living on the floors of the deepest oceans, in and around the extreme environments of hydrothermal vents, on frozen methane gas hydrates, and basically thriving in almost any underwater environment. They have hydrostatic skeletons rather than bones or cartilage, meaning they use water pressure to maintain their structures.
These creatures are seen in fossil records as far back as the Cambrian period, more than 500 million years ago, and today they are key organisms fulfilling many different ecological roles on reefs and most other marine habitats. Some contribute to building reefs from the tubes they live in, whereas others turn over the seafloor. In fact, burrowing polychaetes turn over 1900 tons of seafloor per acre every year. This allows accumulated organic matter in sediments to resurface, as well as minerals and nutrients for other marine organisms. Polychaetes are crucial to keep the ocean healthy and to maintain balanced ecosystems.
One of the carts contained the “sea mouse” Aphrodita aculeata, a favorite of little kids because of its “furry” exterior created by a dense mat of setae. Its generic name comes from the beautiful goddess Aphrodite and aculeata means “spiny”.
Another part of the event was a science illustration cart, which showed how museum staff, interns and volunteers digitize and trace original drawings of polychaetes, which was one of Kristian’s projects while he worked at NMNH. In Q?rius they had demonstrations of leeches, which while technically not polychaetes (they lack chaetae) are descended from polychaete-like ancestors. Visitors had the opportunity to touch live leeches as well as view polychaetes through a microscope.
Kristian Fauchald was a research zoologist who studied polychaetes from 1979 until he passed in April. International Polychaete day will reoccur every July 1st in his memory. His literary works such as “The Pink Book”, are essential to polychaete research now, and in the past. To read more about his work and life read Remembering Kristian Fauchald on the No Bones blog.
As people gathered around the carts, the participants who volunteered their time for this event were reverent of Kristian, always saying complimentary things about him and his work. Many previous students came out to volunteer including Damhnait McHugh, currently a professor at Colgate University, who worked with Kristian in 1993 studying spaghetti worm systematics. She reminisced about Kristian’s character, saying that he had a great laugh and was an overall warm person but would still push you to think more carefully about your arguments. She remarked that he was always working diligently at his microscope and had a remarkable ability to remember species names.
International Polychaete Day was a special day for those in the IZ community to celebrate and remember their friend and colleague. The world-wide events generated an enormous (by invertebrate standards) flurry of activity on social media, with Facebook and Twitter being flooded with pretty polychaete pictures. The hashtag #InvertebratePolychaeteDay was used over 500 times in original tweets and thousands of re-tweets, actually causing the term to trend on twitter. The visitor events held at NMNH were well organized and went spectacularly well. By the end, visitors came to know exactly what polychaetes are and were excited about learning more about these bristly worms.
By: Zoe Grabenstetter – Intern at the No Bones blog [Edited by Allen G. Collins]