Now that things are warming up, if you’re making vacation plans you may want to think twice before scheduling a trip to the beach in South Carolina. The Department of Natural Resources warn of a scary infestation. Swarms “of hook-jawed sea worms” have invaded the east coast and “yes, they bite.”
An infestation of ‘epitokes’
The good news is that the vicious infestation of sea worms is nothing new. “The phenomenon occurs every year and is often followed by hungry throngs of fish and birds.” Sometimes called clam worms, every spring “they undergo a transformation like caterpillars into butterflies and morph into reproductive forms called ‘epitokes.'”
Local anglers are familiar with them for the results they get on “flounder, sea trout, blackfish, striped bass, porgy, whiting, croakers, rockfish and surf perch.”
The worms are great as bait but you want to be real careful reaching into the bucket for one. They “have jaws that are strong enough to break human skin and may clamp their pincer-like jaws onto a finger or hand.”
According to SCDNR, “You may not want to go swimming with epitokes.” Even so, the infestation is interesting. It’s “hard not to appreciate such an unusual coastal sight.” Just be sure to “keep an eye out before dipping into the water.”
Kind of like a cross between a centipede and a piranha, their hundreds of “paddle like” appendages not only make them great swimmers, they’re “covered in sensory bristles that can ‘taste’ chemical smells in the water, sense current changes, and act as feelers.”
The infestation only happens during the breeding season and generally, they only swim at night.
Snare and drag their prey
One of the things which makes the yearly infestation so noteworthy is that their head has not only four eyes, they have two mouths. Right behind those are eight tentacles used for “gripping or grabbing” their prey.
Usually they feed on algae and each other but they don’t mind chomping on people. They get their name from the hooked shape to their jaw, “which snares the prey and then is used to draw it into their mouth using the help of their small tentacles.”
Starting in the Spring and often stretching into early Summer, the leglike appendages “swell or enlarge, enabling them to swim in the water column.”
During the infestation, they breed by splooging their dna into the water and when the eggs are fertilized, they swim off as newly hatched zooplankton. Adults die as soon as they breed.
Along with the yearly infestation, these creatures play “an important part of the Chesapeake Bay food web because they are predators of other invertebrates, consume algae, and are a food source for many other organisms such as crabs, fish, and shrimp.”
They also act as “important bioindicators because they consume algae and sediment along the bottom of the estuaries. Their bodies accumulate toxins through their benthic feeding, and this may travel up the food web. Scientists often study bristle worms as pollution indicators.”