Though my giant swollen hand remains a medical mystery, I now have a suspect. The dread Bearded Fireworm lives on the reef, peaceably crawling about munching on coral polyps. Until…a giant five-fingered hand reaches down from the sky and tried to sample the tunicate that it happens to be crawling on. Then the worm extends its GIANT POISONOUS SPIKES and bam! The offending hand is useless for a week.
They’re not exactly spikes, of course. Most marine worms are polychaetes, also known as bristleworms. Each of their segments has a fleshy protrusion called parapodia, from which protrudes hair-like bristles called setae. (Here’s a nice diagram.) Setae come in all kinds of forms – they can be jointed for traction, hooked for gripping, and so on – but the bearded fireworm’s case, they are hollow and filled with poison. Because of this kickass defense, fireworms fear no predators and are out and about during the day. The one that nailed me must have been small or I would have seen it, but individuals can get up to 12″ long.
Bearded fireworms apparently also have an unfortunate tendency to sneak into people’s aquariums. Googling around brought out some rather desperate threads on how to remove them. I can personally assure these people that gloves are no defense. I wasn’t wearing any pansy neoprene diving gloves, either – when I work with spiky things like nasty spicule-filled tunicates, I wear hardened rubber work gloves. But they were no match for the probable fireworm, no no.
The moral of this story? Looky, no touchy is BY FAR the best way to hang out on a reef. Collecting tunicate samples is way more harrowing than I thought it would be. On top of the fireworm, I almost got nailed by an extraordinarily attractive and extraordinarily toothy Golden Moray yesterday. (Rick would be…so proud. Scroll down for his That’s a Moray Monday series with all the moray goodness you can handle. Except for the golden moray. Rick, do you take requests?)
And sorry, ghouls. I forgot to take a photo of the swollen hand at its peak, what with the science and the doctor and all. Though my thumb still hurts, it is no longer even the slightest bit impressive. You will simply have to use your fervid imagination.