Friends in strange places

Animal associations can be strange and fascinating things. We're used to thinking about inter-specific relationships that are either demonstrably good or bad. Bees and flowering plants--good. Mosquitos on their vertebrate hosts--bad. In many cases the 'goodness' or 'badness' of these associations is pretty clear. However, there are cases of intimate relationships between animals of different species that cannot be easily categorized as good or bad.

Take, for example, the barnacles on the skin of gray and humpback whales. From the barnacles' perspective the skin of a whale isn't a bad place to live: as the whale swims through the water the barnacle is continually flushed by clean water, which should make feeding easier. But is the whale affected in any way by its barnacle passengers? I suppose they might increase the drag coefficient a little bit and make swimming marginally less efficient, and maybe they itch, although it's hard to imagine that the whale would really care much one way or the other.

A week ago I went to the intertidal up at Pigeon Point. It's a great spot for certain animals, especially the small six-rayed stars of the genus Leptasterias. These stars rarely get larger than 8 cm in diameter and always have six arms. I've been told by a friend who just happens to be a sea star taxonomist at the Smithsonian, that making species identifications in the field is very difficult for this genus, so I've stopped trying. I do know that some of the Leptasterias stars have slender rays and others have thicker rays.

Two stars of the genus Leptasterias, at Pigeon Point
9 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The most common large star at Pigeon Point is the bat star, Patiria miniata. These stars get about as big as my outstretched hand, and come in a variety of colors. Last week I didn't see very many Patiria, but all of them were reddish orange, like this one:

Bat star (Patiria miniata) at Pigeon Point
30 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Unless they're so abundant as to be annoying, I like picking up bat stars and looking at their underside. That's because sometimes they have these little dark squiggles in their ambulacral groove:

Patiria miniata with commensal worm, at Pigeon Point
30 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

That little squiggle is a polychaete worm, Oxydromus pugettensis. It is one of many polychaete worms that forms a symbiotic relationship with another animal species. Some symbiotic polychaetes live in the tubes of other worms, or within the shells of bivalves, for example. Oxydromus crawls around inside the ambulacral groove of Patiria, where it feeds on scraps of leftover food from the star's meals. The worms don't like light, and as soon as I picked up this star and flipped it over the worm started burrowing down between the star's tube feet to get back to the dark. The next day I found another star with a worm and was able to take a picture of it before it disappeared.

Commensal worm (Oxydromus pugettensis) in the ambulacral groove of Patiria miniata, at Pigeon Point
1 May 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Oxydromus pugettensis is clearly segmented, evidence of its annelidan roots. It doesn't look very different from many other free-crawling polychaetes. A member of the family Hesionidae, it lives in fine silty sediments in the intertidal as well as in the ambulacral grooves of sea stars. According to one source, it is the most common intertidal member of its family along the California and Oregon coast. For reasons as yet undetermined, P. miniata seems to be the favored host, although I have also seen the worms in the ambulacral grooves of the leather star Dermasterias imbricata.

Over two days at Pigeon Point last week I examined a total of five bat stars, and all of them had worms. One of the stars had three worms! It's possible that more worms were hiding deep within the ambulacral grooves, too. I always wonder how, in this type of association, the partners manage to find each other. How does one "lucky" star end up with three worms? Do the worms every migrate from one star to another? Does the star do anything to attract the worms? In what way(s) would the star benefit from having a few worms in its ambulacral regions? It does seem that the worms don't stick around very long once a star is brought into the lab--I don't know if they die or just leave on their own--but since they also live in the sand maybe they do actively migrate between stars. There hasn't been much work done on these worms in recent decades, probably because of the overall decline in natural history studies. However, I'll keep this worm in mind for my Marine Invertebrate Zoology students this fall, when one of them asks me for help coming up with an idea for his or her independent research project.

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