Toward. Who knew the worms could create such a discussion when they suddenly appeared in the St. Johns River last month.
But that was the case a few weeks ago when my friend Jeff Lageman, former Jaguars outstanding defensive end and current host of “The Outdoors Show” on a local radio station, sent me pictures of worms swimming in the river. . Turns out the swarm of worms had coincided with a local sheep tournament and the fish weren’t biting. They were full of worms.
Jeff wanted me to appear on his show and talk about the verses. Happy to help and it’s always fun to go on the show to talk about the river, ocean, hunting or fishing. We do this several times a year. Discussions can get really interesting when we start to mix in some of the science behind what people see on the river.
Back to verses. You may remember from your high school biology class that there are several types of worms. Among the most common are what are called segmented worms, such as the earthworms you find in your garden or the bloodworms you use to fish. Leeches also belong to the same phylum called Annelida.
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The worms in question are called polychaetes, meaning “many hairs or feet.” It is a very common species found in river and ocean sediments.
Worms are also an important part of the food web. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and habitats. Some bury themselves in mud while others just crawl through sediment. They can build calcified tubes that form worm reefs along the Florida coasts near Stuart.
You might see the worm tubes on rocks or driftwood, or maybe you’ve seen photos of the beautiful and delicate feather duster worms on a coral reef. They are all polychaetes.
And when it comes time to reproduce, different species of worms can do so in different ways. In this case, both males and females modify a part of their body to contain eggs or sperm which break off and swim to the surface. This is what the fishermen observed.
Sometimes these worm-like segments appear to have grown a new head, sometimes not. They swarm and release their eggs and sperm, fertilization occurs and millions of new worm larvae hatch.
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These microscopic organisms are also part of the food web. Most of them will be eaten by river filter feeders. It takes millions and millions of worm larvae for a few to live to adulthood.
Swarms or egg laying of worms is an annual event. They occur more often at night and can frequently be seen around dock lights. We even call the full moon in March the Worm Moon.
These full moon names are associated with other seasonal changes that we have observed. Many are familiar with the September Harvest Moon or the October Hunter’s Moon. My favorite is the Buck Moon in July which got its name from the emergence of new antlers on the male deer that month.
In some species, the female worm segments will produce some light, or bioluminescence, to attract males. We call these worms fire and there is even speculation that Christopher Columbus saw the light from these worms as he approached the Bahamas in 1492.
Who knew verses could be so interesting?
Glad you asked River Life
Are there sharks in the St. Johns River?
Yes, but you don’t have to worry about being bitten. They are mostly small and relatively harmless. Sometimes larger sharks wander into the river, but their physiology needs salt water. They cannot spend much time in the softer water of the river.
River Life airs the first Tuesday of every month in The Times-Union. Email Quinton White, executive director of the University of Jacksonville Marine Science Research Institute, with questions about our waterways at [email protected] To learn more about the MSRI, visit ju.edu/msri.