University of Southern California

Burrowing Worms

Kelly Dorgan, January 31, evening — I am an oceanographer/ecologist interested in how animals like worms and clams that live in muddy and sandy sediments interact with their environment. To put it simply, I study how worms burrow in mud.

Marine worms have similar functions to the earthworms in your garden: They mix the sediment, making it less compact and introducing oxygen, which is important for the bacteria and smaller organisms in the community. There are also a lot of them — 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in marine sediments, and there are tens of thousands of worms in a square meter of sediment. I know there are worms in Antarctica (such as the bristle-covered polychaete worm pictured below), but are those worms different from worms on the coast of California? Are the differences important enough for me to fly around the world to study them?

wormkelly.jpgOxygen is a pretty big concern for anything that lives in the mud, because there is only oxygen in the top few millimeters of mud. Lots of animals deal with this problem by pumping water down into tubes and burrows. Down here, where the water is 28F, there’s more oxygen in the water; but because the water is more viscous, it’s harder for worms to irrigate their burrows to get to the oxygen. I’m really interested in how much worms are moving and feeding, and how they affect the sediment around them. How much thermal compensation do they exhibit? How does that affect their activity?

These are all big questions that I didn’t expect to answer on this trip, but I have learned a lot about the challenges of conducting research in Antarctica, gotten some new ideas, and met many outstanding scientists with whom I hope to collaborate in the future.

Kelly Dorgan is a postdoctoral researcher at University of California Berkeley.

1 Comment

i am writing a childrens' book on worms. my limited research begged your question are there worms in antartica? any imput or direction you can provide would be appreciated. my aim is to acclimate youngsters with the planets rich heritage of the ever working worm. the worms ability to survive thousands of years and the worms diversity. thank you for studying such a noble creature.