Don't fret, tree trimmers. You won't find any Christmas tree worms squirming among your lights and candy canes. Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) are actually ocean-dwelling members of Serpulidae, a family classified under the subclass Polychaeta in the phylum Annelida. Dubbed Christmas tree worms because of their shape and brilliantly hued tentacles, these tubular, segmented worms dwell in coral reefs in tropical waters all over the world.
The Christmas tree worm's name is derived from the brightly colored, tiered spiral radioles (feather-like tentacles) that protrude from its body, giving it the appearance of a tiny fir tree. The radioles typically span a little over an inch long, and come in a wide variety of colors including blue, orange, yellow, white, red and pink. It's these colorful radioles that dot the surfaces of live coral and grab the attention of scuba divers.
Dinner at Home
According to Oklahoma Scuba, Christmas tree worms are passive filter feeders. As far as food is concerned, they are content to sit and wait for home delivery. They use their radioles to absorb phytoplankton and microorganisms floating in the water. The radioles sort the food particles, discarding the large ones and sending the small ones to the digestive tract. Grains of sand are deposited in sacs to be used later for building tubes.
Like most polychaetes, Christmas tree worms do not mate, but engage in external fertilization. Males and females cast their sperm and eggs into the open water. The sperm fuse with the eggs and fertilization takes place. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae that settle into the coral reefs that will become their permanent homes.
From the moment a Christmas tree larva is formed, it settles onto the surface of a coral reef and burrows into it, creating a deep hole. The larva remains concealed in the hole as it develops into an adult worm. It secretes a calcareous shell around its body as added protection. Content in its cozy den, the Christmas tree worm remains concealed in its burrow for its entire life, only partially emerging to feed.
By Invitation Only
True to its reclusive nature, the Christmas tree worm does not appreciate uninvited company. It's extraordinarily sensitive to touch, light, shadows and motion. Upon detecting any of these intrusions, it quickly retracts and disappears into its burrow. To further make its point, it covers the top of its burrow with a little lid called an operculum.
Yvette Sajem has been a professional writer since 1995. Her work includes greeting cards and two children's books. A lifelong animal advocate, she is active in animal rescue and transport, and is particularly partial to senior and special needs animals.