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Wonderous Worms

By Dylan Clarke, Dr Teresa Darbyshire and Kate Mortimer.

Have you ever considered the importance of worms? Perhaps not, but without worms the world would be a very different place. Our oceans are full of wonderous worms called marine bristle worms, or polychaetes to give them their scientific name. This name literally means ‘many bristles’ referring to the hair-like structures we often see down the sides of their bodies. These sea creatures are often extremely beautiful, and they play a vitally key role in the health of our oceans.

Sadly, despite their importance we do not even know how many species are out there. That is where our Iziko scientists step in. Dylan Clarke, Curator of Marine Invertebrates and Dr Jyothi Kara have been working with two scientists from Cardiff in Wales on a project to try and untangle the identity of some of the marine bristle worms here in South Africa. The project is part of a Royal Society International Exchanges Grant and is already providing several interesting discoveries.

Dr Jyothi Kara and Dylan Clarke, Curator of Marine Invertebrates at work

Work to unravel what species are present off South Africa started in the 1950s and 1960s with surveys from the University of Cape Town. However, it is believed that there are more than five hundred unnamed and yet-to-be discovered species. Dylan and Jyothi travelled over to Cardiff in May to study specimens of similar species, which would help point the scientists in the right direction. During that stay, several species new to science were discovered! Now, Dr Teresa Darbyshire and Kate Mortimer from Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales are over at Iziko Museum of South Africa to carry on untangling this puzzle of worms.

Dr Teresa Darbyshire and Kate Mortimer at the Iziko South African Museum.

Iziko holds many specimens from those original surveys carried out in the 1950s and 1960s and other surveys besides. This is a vitally important resource for understanding the life within our oceans. The team are busy taking images, drawing, and describing these new species. Once they have a description the next step will be to decide on their names. That is always an interesting part of the project.

New species described, drawn, and discovered by Iziko and Amgueddfa Cymru Scientists.

We are looking forward to hearing the results from this project which will presented in part at the 14th International Polychaete Conference in Stellenbosch during July, and later published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (African Zoology).

So next time you step on to the beach, you might think about those wonderous worms beneath your feet and the important role they play in keeping our oceans healthy, as well as the scientists at Iziko and Amgueddfa Cymru that help to protect them.

Kate Mortimer, Dylan Clarke, and Dr Teresa Darbyshire in the collections at Iziko Museums of South Africa.

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Please be advised that all Iziko Museums of South Africa will be closed to the public on Election Day,  Wednesday, 29 May 2024.