Quill worms belong to the annelid family Onuphidae and are called like that because of their unique tubes. The tubes are secreted by their inhabitants and are very light and rigid, resembling a quill, the basal part of a bird’s feather used for writing. Quill worms are epibenthic creatures capable of crawling on the surface of the sea floor carrying their tubes along. Their anterior feet are modified, strengthened and enlarged, bearing thick and stout bristles. These anterior feet are used for locomotion.
Quill worms are widely distributed in the ocean inhabiting mostly slope depths down to 2000 m. Being large in body size (up to 10-20 cm long), they can be quite abundant in some areas. Meyer et al. (2016) reported Hyalinoecia artifex reaching up to 70 ind./m2 in the Baltimore Canyon at 400 m water depth. Another quill worm, H. tubicola, which is very common in Norwegian waters, reached up to 272 ind./m2 at 365 m offshore of Chesapeake Bay (Wigley & Emery 1967).
Quill worms are believed to be motile scavengers. Baited monster camera experiments performed at 2000 m deep site in Baja California demonstrated that Hyalinoecia worms can accumulate in hundreds of specimens five hours after the bait (rotten fish) has been deployed (Dayton & Hessler 1972). Myer et al. (2016) analyzed the stable isotope content in Hyalinoecia artifex tissues confirming its secondary consumer status. Their results supported earlier observations on the gut content of the same species by Gaston (1987) showing the presence of the remains of various benthic invertebrates.
Video 1. Quill worm Hyalinoecia tubicola moving inside its tube (by K. Kongshavn).
Video 2. Quill worm Hyalinoecia tubicola protruding from the tube opening. Three antennae and a pair of palps are seen on the head. The first two pairs of feet are enlarged and strengthened (by K. Kongshavn).
Dayton, P.K., Hessler, R.R., 1972. Role of biological disturbance in maintaining diversity in the deep sea. Deep-Sea Research 19: 199–208.
Meyer, K.S., Wagner, J.K.S., Ball, B., Turner, P.J., Young, C.M., Van Dover, C.L. 2016. Hyalinoecia artifex: Field notes on a charismatic and abundant epifaunal polychaete on the US Atlantic continental margin. Invertebrate Biology 135: 211–224. doi:10.1111/ivb.12132
Gaston, G.R. 1987. Benthic polychaeta of the Middle Atlantic Bight: feeding and distribution. Marine Ecology Progress Series 36: 251–262.
Wigley, R.L., Emery, K.O. 1967. Benthic animals, particularly Hyalinoecia (Annelida) and Ophiomusium (Echinodermata), in sea-bottom photographs from the continental slope. In: Deep-Sea Photography. Hersey JB, ed., pp. 235–250. John Hopkins Press, Baltimore.