Were you to lay eyes on the bizarre worm blobs of Colorado’s sulfur caves, you’d have just a few breaths in you before the deadly gases brought your sightseeing tour to an untimely end. Fortunately, being tucked deep within a spring it’s not a place you’re likely to end up in by accident, but it is one that researchers – kitted out with the appropriate degree of personal protective equipment – have ventured out to study.
The worm blobs in question are made up of Limnodrilus sulphurensis, an extremophile that’s evolved to tolerate the severe conditions found in the hellish environment of Colorado’s sulfur caves, hence the name. They were first stumbled upon in 2007, but it wasn’t until 9 years and 1,000 hours of lab work later that they were formally recognized as a new species, writes ScienceAlert.
The ancient cave they call home sits on the side of Steamboat Springs’ Howelsen Hill, and is the culmination of hundreds of thousands of years of erosion as hot spring water coursed through rock. The end result is a slimy, odorous cave that humans wouldn’t last very long in, owing to all the toxic gas made up of lethal concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide, but apparently it was viewed as hot real estate for this group of gooey worms.
As if worm blobs occupying the dark crevices of a deadly cave system weren’t ominous enough, they also come in a slasher-movie shade of blood red as a result of their hemoglobin-rich blood. The trait has landed sulfur cave worms in the laps of researchers looking into antibiotic development.
“These worms have an extremely unusual network of capillaries and blood vessels at the surface of their skin that is very complicated and dense that helps them absorb oxygen from the water in their cave environment,” David Steinmann, research associate of the zoology department at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science who first discovered the worms in 2007, told NPR for Northern Colorado.
Worm blobs have been found among many species across different habitats, from toxic caves to human sewers and marine environments. Their capacity to aggregate in their thousands, work together and unravel in seconds has put them on the radar of Saad Bhamla, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech, who has been studying the method to the madness of worm blobs.
The Bhamla Lab has long been studying the "3D, squishy, and shape-shifting blobs" worm species like Lumbriculus variegatus form, discovering how they aggregate in a way that improves their collective chances of survival by reducing evaporation and protecting against changes in temperature.
It’s an adaptive kind of mechanofunctional living that biomimicry roboticists can so far only dream of, which is why Bhamla and colleagues recently tackled the weird ways in which they unravel, too. For their new paper, "Ultrafast reversible self-assembly of living tangled matter", they made worm jello to map out the ways in which the worms tangle by setting blobs in gelatin and scanning their positions.
It might sound like a recipe from Roald Dahl's The Twits, but their research has revealed how California blackworms can tangle in minutes but untangle in milliseconds, potentially paving the way for some pretty incredible active materials in engineering.
That's why these worm balls get so big. They're full of secrets.
The new study is published in Science.