Of recent, the beaches on Sanibel Island have been littered with the empty tubes of polychaete worms called Parchment Worms. At one time our sandy beaches were peppered with a rich patina of sparking shells – jewels brought forth from the shining sea. Now, our wrack lines are festooned with countless crinkled, dried protein houses of worms that in life lie buried in the sands of our nearshore environments.
Welcome to the new Sanibel Island– the Isle of Worms, a gem in our new Gulf of Mexico. Before our eyes, we are changing our oceans – both through our abuse and our neglect. And, I bet if you polled the residents of our Sanctuary Island on the state of their island, the responses would focus on recent air temperature, real estate prices and traffic congestion.
For those who have investigated them, the worm tubes are mostly not empty. Parchment worms have a fascinating relationship with small commensal crabs that share their home. Most of the dried tubes still have crabs inside them – the hard exoskeletons of the crabs remaining long after the soft polychaete worm has decomposed.
As a zoologist, these creatures are fascinating. They are highly evolved and elegantly designed organisms, capable of making a living from filtering tiny fragments of organic matter from the sea around them – buried under the sea floor safe from most predators.
For marine conservation, our goal is not to create snapshots – static states of the present, projected to the future. Nothing ever stays the same. Our goal is to project a future that will be healthy and sustainable; and to find pathways to achieve that end. However, the rate at which we are changing our oceans is alarming – we are rapidly creating an ocean full of jellyfish and filter feeders.
Perhaps future generations will excitedly scour the beaches, dissecting parchment worm tubes to find that perfect commensal crab exoskeleton to add to their growing collection. Happy to be away from the hustle and bustle and able to spend some quality nature time searching for the perfect worm tube, or a freshly stranded Moon Jelly still mostly intact. Maybe that is the future we need to see and strive for, but I hope not.
So, if you happen upon a tall, tattooed man standing among the worm tubes, gazing to sea with a tear in his eye, don’t be alarmed, it’s likely me contemplating the oceans we are creating as our legacy for our children.