Marine life

Not Your Ordinary Feather Duster

Story by by Joanne Huemoeller

Admittedly, I wouldn’t want to advertise the fact that I enjoy writing about worms. But these aren’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill worms. These are marine worms and a world apart from their terrestrial cousins. Sea worms come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors and have a variety of life styles. One of the worms I find most fascinating is the feather duster.

A crown of

Along our coast there are two common varieties of feather duster worms, both with a strong resemblance to their namesake. A colorful plume made up of tentacles or gills called radioles is the trademark of these worms. And all species of feather dusters secrete a tube into which they can quickly withdraw at the slight-est provocation.

The worm’s crown of tentacles radiates out from the head of the worm, exchanging oxygen while at the same time filtering suspended food particles. The ocean surge brings food and sediment to the waiting plumes. Both food and sediment are transported to grooves that run down the central shaft of each plume to the waiting mouth—it works much like a funnel.

Feather Duster Worm

Marine Life Feather WormThe mouth accepts only the smallest particles. The rest are sorted and either rejected completely or reserved for use in tube building. A third function of the gill plumes is to house a first alert system of eyespots. Eyespots warn of movement and shadows—both possible indicators of a predator’s presence.

The worm’s body is that of a typical segmented earthworm and is held secure within the tube by uncini, hooked structures at its posterior end. All we see of the feather duster worm is its crowning plume. The rest of its body remains safely out of sight within its tubular home.

Reproduction is accomplished by external fertilization, and the young larvae become part of the plankton, animals that drift with the current. But the larvae develop quickly, leaving their planktonic lifestyle of adventure and danger behind. Within 3 to 4 weeks, they are ready to find a hard surface, usually near others of their kind, on which to settle. The young worm attaches and begins metamorphosing into the adult sessile (permanently attached) form.

Northern Feather Dusters

Clusters of Eudistylia vancouveri, or the northern feather duster worm, are most commonly found on docks, pilings, intertidal and subtidal rocks, and surge channel walls. Wherever they settle, there must be enough current to provide a constant flow of food. These are social worms in that they aggregate in large, rounded clumps. Since these clumps are sometimes found where there is heavy surge and harsh winter storms, their tubes are particularly tough and anchored securely enough to be able to withstand the pressure of battering surf.

When the tide is out, all you see is their grayish, parchment-like tubes. Water retained within the tubes keeps these segmented worms cool and protects them from drying out. When the tide returns, the worms’ 2-inch-in-diameter, maroon-and-green-banded plumes reemerge and, once again, they begin to feed.

Giant Feather Dusters

Like the northern worm, the giant feather duster worm, or Eudistylia polymorpha, attaches to rock walls, pilings, docks, and other man-made structures. This worm’s plumes are also colorful but come in orange, brown, maroon, or tan and are occasionally banded with a lighter color. The plume projects out of a tan tube that can reach from 10 to 18 inches and is frequently crusted with sediment. Although the giant feather duster does not form the rounded clumps of the northern feather duster, they do congregate. When found in large numbers, they have an eye-catching resemblance to a garden of underwater flowers.

Writer–photographer Joanne Huemoeller specializes in marine life subjects of the Pacific Northwest. Her education and marine science background led to the publication of her work in books, magazines, and calendars.

Feather Duster Love

Now, to add a little intrigue to this story, there are indications that hybridiz-ation, the mating of two distinct species, may occasionally occur during the spawn of these two worms. The result is that we now have northern feather dusters, giant feather dusters, and a cross of the two! Life in the ocean is never boring!

Like most life forms, feather duster worms have their champions and their detractors. For those responsible for dock maintenance, the habit these worms have of settling out on wharves, docks, and pilings creates a nuisance that can be difficult to deal with. On the other hand, their beauty is much loved by divers, tidepoolers, and boaters who take the time to look at the life that abounds on the docks to which they are tied.

Writer–photographer Joanne Huemoeller specializes in marine life subjects of the Pacific Northwest. Her education and marine science background led to the publication of her work in books, magazines, and calendars.


Hatfield’s SeaFest
is Back!

Last year many people were disappointed when SeaFest didn’t happen, but this year it’s back better than ever. So come to Hatfield Marine Science Center on June 23 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for their unique Open House and Marine Festival.

Octopus at Marine Hatfield Science Center

The theme is timely—“Climate Change: Global Effects, Local Consequences.”

This is the public’s chance to go behind the scenes to tour the labs and meet the scientists who do the research. Exhibits cover many areas, from the survival suits and life rafts used by fishing observers to the smallest zooplankton. Visitors may view sonar images, which allows scientists to study the nighttime behavior of fish and much more.

Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury opens the speakers’ forum with his presentation on the effects of global climate change. He’ll be followed by other speakers and a late-afternoon panel discussion.


The SeaFest Passport for kids will prompt them to ask researchers cool questions; in return, they’ll be able to fill their passports with stamps from each station and earn a prize. They’ll get to meet Junior Ranger Beaver from the state parks, hear a storyteller, play the Tidepool Walk game, and much more.

Bring the whole family. SeaFest is educational, it’s entertaining, and it has no admission charge.

Hatfield Marine Science Center

Oregon Coast May/June 2007

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