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Parchment worms are best pinched in the dark

Tube-dwellers make a mysterious glowing mucus

8:40am, July 28, 2014

GLOW WORM  Parchment worms use their filmy flaps to pump water through the tubes they build around themselves. This one has been removed from its U-shaped home.

Oh go ahead. Squeeze the soft tube of a parchment worm. But gently.

If it’s dark, “you will see puffs of blue mucus come out,” says Dimitri Deheyn. And the blue is glowing.

How the ocean-dwelling Chaetopterus parchment worms create the long-lasting glow — and the soft-but-tough tubes themselves — are still substantial mysteries, Deheyn says. 

Parchment worms spend their adult lives inside the U-shaped tubes they create, with just the rounded base buried. They live in sea bottoms around the world, from deep ocean canyons to marine shallows. When Deheyn first shows worms to visitors at his laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., sometimes “they are ready to faint because they are not expecting such a weird-looking creature,” he says. (Watch Nature's Glowing Slime to see worms in Deheyn's lab.)

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