In one of those bizarre nature situations, thousands of large, fat worms descended upon a California beach, spooked out of their burrows, after a powerful storm washed away their cover,
DRAKE’S BEACH California USA (CNN) – Thousands of unsightly — and phallic-looking — worms were left bare on a California beach. Fat innkeeper worms — colloquially known as “penis fish” — washed up on Drakes Beach in Point Reyes, Calif., around fifty miles northwest of San Francisco, last Friday.
First reported by nature publication Bay Nature, the “penis fish” that washed ashore is the Urechis caupo, a type of spoonworm that primarily lives on the Pacific coast from southern Oregon to Baja California. At around 10 inches, its peculiar shape is perfect for coastal life, allowing it to dig a U-shaped burrow for itself and for other sea creatures, like crabs and fish, in sand or mudflat.
Wildlife enthusiast David Ford captured the foreboding scene, which looks as though a plane full of frankfurters flung open the hatch and let the dogs rain down upon the unassuming shore. Ford sent his quandary and the surreal images of the Drakes Beach shore to Bay Nature magazine, a local science publication.
They are not franks but fat innkeeper worms, almost as old as the wet sand in which they burrow. And their appearance was rare: The stranding Ford stumbled into might’ve been one of the few times they’d ever left the ground in their adult lives, biologist Ivan Parr told CNN.
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SHOOK ? Thousands of these marine worms—called fat innkeeper worms, or “penis fish”—were found on Drake’s Beach last week! These phallic organisms are quite common along the West coast of North America, but they spend their whole lives in U-shaped burrows under the sand, so few beachgoers are aware of their existence. ⛈? A recent storm in Northern California brought strong waves that washed away several feet of sand from the intertidal zone, leaving all these fat innkeeper worms exposed on the surface. ? Next time you go to the beach, just think about the hundreds of 10-inch, pink sausages wiggling around just a few feet under the sand. ? . . Get the full story in our new #AsktheNaturalist with @california_natural_history via link in bio! (?: Beach photo courtesy David Ford; Worm photo by Kate Montana via iNaturalist)
The bulbous worms can live their entire lives underground, holed up in u-shaped burrows beneath the wet sand along the California coast. Colloquially known as “penis fish” among biologists and dilettantes for its phallic shape, the innkeeper worm earned their proper name for temporarily housing smaller creatures in their burrows, with little conflict.
Pea crabs, clams and the tiny arrow goby fish share space with the worm and eat the food it discards, though there’s little in it for the worm. There’s no need for fat innkeeper worms to come up to the surface, where otters, gulls and humans (they’re a salty, South Korean delicacy) could prey on them, when they can cast a mucousy net to catch food and reproduce from the comfort of their burrows.
“We’re seeing the risk of building your home out of sand,” Parr wrote in Bay Nature. “Strong storms — especially during El Niño years — are perfectly capable of laying siege to the intertidal zone, breaking apart the sediment, and leaving their contents stranded on the shore.”
The powerful storms that hit Drakes Beach around Thanksgiving dumped an inch of rain and wind gusts of 45 miles an hour on the area, likely a driver of the worm’s surfacing, Parr told CNN. The other two previous mass strandings in 2010 and 2016 hit during El Niño weather events, characterized by warmer-than-average waters that routinely bring with them more rain to California.
The resilient worms are ancient creatures, their burrows dating back some 300 million years, Parr said, and one of the oldest worms ever found was believed to be 25 years old.
But because they live primarily underground, the innkeeper worms are difficult to quantify, he said. The impacts of strandings on their populations will likely stay hidden as long as the worms do.
The Yucatan Times