Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Weird Worm Uses Elastic Body to Sling Slime

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Weird Worm Uses Elastic Body to Sling Slime

Article excerpt

One worm's slimy technique is as ingenious as it is disgusting, scientists have discovered.

Discharge is a well-utilized mechanic in the biological world - vertebrates urinate, squid use jet propulsion to swim, and archer fish can shoot insects out of the sky with a well-aimed stream of water. But biological jet streams are usually straight; very few animals can produce streams that fly every which way.

One such group of animals, known as velvet worms, are the subject of new research by Andres Concha, of Adolfo Ibanez University in Chile. His study, published today in Nature Communications, shows how these slime-mongers exploit natural laws to do the dirty work for them.

Velvet worms comprise an obscure phylum called Onychophora. These soft-bodied animals boast several rows of legs, and some even bear live young. But most notably, the velvet worms hunt and defend themselves with a curious tactic - jets of sticky mucous-like goo shot from an opening on the tops of their heads to immobilize their enemies.

The bodies of velvet worms are equipped with branched slime glands. Upon sensing prey or danger, an individual can expel a rapid jet of the sticky fluid from openings called oral papillae, thus immobilizing the target. While projecting slime, the oral papilla can oscillate three or more times in just a fifteenth of a second - this way, the slime covers a greater area and is more likely to ensnare prey.

It was long-assumed that complex neuromuscular structures must be behind such rapid movement. But Dr. Concha and his team were skeptical. Upon examination, it appeared that the worm's muscular system would be incapable of producing such an action.

And as it happens, they were right. By utilizing anatomical imaging, theoretical analysis, and high-speed videography, they determined that a velvet worm doesn't need a muscular system to oscillate its oral papilla at all. Instead, it takes advantage of the elastic instability of its flimsy body. …

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