We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Coral Mover and Shaker

By Josie Glausiusz
May 1, 2001 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:30 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Huge delicate coral colonies such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef may owe their existence to an unlikely benefactor— eunicids, a class of ferocious-looking worms.

Courtesy of John Chisholm/Scientific Centre of Monaco

Scientists had long wondered how corals, which spend their lives glued to a rock, manage to establish reefs in the turbulent waters at the edges of continents. John Chisholm, a marine biologist at the Scientific Centre of Monaco, chanced upon an answer after cleaning out his aquarium. One morning he noticed that three coral colonies in the near-empty tank had moved 6 inches overnight. Intrigued, he set up an infrared night-vision camera and captured footage of eunicid worms crawling through the sand, grabbing bits of coral in their jaws, and building primitive shelters (above).

Chisholm believes that the worms, which can grow to almost 20 feet long, construct stable platforms on which coral reefs can grow even if the surrounding sands are constantly in motion. In exchange, the worms gain a lair from which they can emerge to feed. He sees this as a prime example of the self-organizing force of nature. "Here's an incredibly simple organism, not accredited with having much of a brain, able to assemble a habitat," says Chisholm. "And in the process, it creates conditions that can give rise to some of the greatest ecosystems on this planet."

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.