Don't let the fancy Latin naming system fool you — scientists love a good joke as much as anyone else. For proof, look no further than the Osedax mucofloris. It seems like a highfalutin name for a little deep-sea worm, but the translation shows that it fits just right. In English, the name translates to "bone-eating snot-flower worm."
You read that correctly: the bone-eating snot-flower worm.
As the name suggests, this worm is a pretty unusual creature, to say the least. It lives on the bottom of the ocean, eating through any bones that have made their way down (usually whale, but this animal isn't picky). Eating isn't quite the right word, though. It's more like absorbing.
The bone-eating snot-flower worm doesn't have a mouth, or any digestive system at all, really. It grows roots that secrete acid that break down the bone, and then absorbs the fats inside the bone structure.
With its root system and spongy external lungs, it does look a bit like a flower ... just, a snotty one.
Photo by MBARI
These worms also don't fit the usual reproductive scheme. The dwarf males actually live inside of the females, with up to 100 males inside a single female. They reproduce continuously, and the male ejaculates from the top of its head.
Freaky sex life aside, the worms may be most interesting in the context of the larger, ocean-bottom ecosystem.
A recent study found that by burning holes into the bones, the bone-eating snot-flower worm is actually providing habitat for a whole bunch of other animals, creating a biodiverse community.
Researchers found that bones with Osedax present had three times as many animals present, and twice as many different species.
"We think these holes and degraded areas can be used by other animals as a shelter, a place to feed on inner bone compounds and an entrance to inner bone matrices," said lead author Joan Alfaro-Lucas.
This makes them much more than worms — it makes them ecosystem engineers, serving a similar role as beavers whose dams create biodiverse ponds, or caterpillars and woodpeckers whose similar boring habits create shelters for other animals.
Pretty heady stuff for a bone-eating mucus flower!