King of the worms

Look: Bizarre sea creature brings a terrifying Godzilla nemesis to life

Ramisyllis kingghidorahi is almost as impressive as its namesake.

Originally Published: 
M. Teresa Aguado, et al. ORGANISMS DIVERSITY & EVOLUTION (2022)

What does a tiny sea worm have in common with a three-headed, electricity-spewing dragon?

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They share a name, for one, thanks to a discovery made by a team of researchers at the University of Göttingen.

The researchers spotted Ramisyllis kingghidorahi off the coast of Japan’s Sado Island in 2019. It’s the third known species of branching worm that reminded the scientists of one of Japan’s most famous kaiju (fictional giant monsters).

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Introduced in the 1964 film Ghidorah, King Ghidorah is considered Godzilla’s greatest nemesis. Ramisyllis kingghidorahi isn’t as intimidating, but it does share one incredible ability with its namesake.

“King Ghidorah is a branching fictitious animal that can regenerate its lost ends, so we thought this was an appropriate name for the new species of branching worm.”

It can’t create hurricanes or control gravity like King Ghidorah, but Ramisyllis kingghidorahi is fascinating.

Like other branching worms, Ramisyllis kingghidorahi has a single head attached to a body that splits off in an asymmetrical tangle of branches.

Branching worms live in natural canals of sea sponges. Researchers think their peculiar bodies may have evolved to let them expand through their habitat by forming new branches.

M. Teresa Aguado, et al. ORGANISMS DIVERSITY & EVOLUTION (2022)

Sarah Faulwetter

When the first branching worm was discovered in 1879, scientists thought it was the only species of its kind. A second species found in 2012 and now, the latest discovery, both show unexpected diversity in this bizarre group of animals.

To reproduce, branching worms form units called stolons, which detach from the parent body and swim freely. Multiple stolons can form simultaneously on the worm’s many branches.

Scientists observed Ramisyllis kingghidorahi stolons performing an aggressive shaking dance, which they believe helps spread the worm’s reproductive cells.

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The sponges that host branching worms, fortunately, aren’t conscious, but scientists aren’t sure whether they get some benefit from their uninvited guests.

Other aspects of branching worms’ lives are even more mysterious. For example, Ramisyllis kingghidorahi is seen here digesting food, but scientists don’t know how they feed themselves and eat enough to keep their gigantic bodies nourished.

M. Teresa Aguado, et al. ORGANISMS DIVERSITY & EVOLUTION (2022)

Ramisyllis kingghidorahi shares a common ancestor with a branching worm found in Australia, so for now, scientists are studying these two species to learn more.

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