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This Tube Worm Will Outlive Us All

Some members of the species can live past 300.

This will be alive, and you will be dead.
This will be alive, and you will be dead. Chemo III project, BOEM and NOAA OER

Down in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, there are cold seeps, deep on the ocean floor, that are home to various kinds of tube worms. (A tube worm, for what it’s worth, is fairly a broad category—a wormy invertebrate that anchors itself someplace underwater and builds a nice, mineral tube for itself.)

A couple of these tube worms, namely Lamellibrachia luymesi and Seepiophila jonesi, have long life spans, much longer than creatures of their size are supposed to have. But there’s a third species of tube worm in the area about which little is known, Escarpia laminata, first identified in 1985. A team of scientists decided to learn more about this mysterious tube worm and wondered if it also lived an unusually long time.

What they found, as they report in The Science of Nature, is that Escapardia laminata can grow even older than its counterparts—some individuals might even reach 300 years old. In other words, a tube worm that’s alive right now is likely going to outlive all of us.

Tubes!
Tubes! Chemo III project, BOEM and NOAA OER/CC BY 2.0

The team came to this conclusion by studying 356 tube worms and measuring how much they grew. With that data, as well as observations about the death and birth rates of the species, they used an age-prediction model developed for other tube worms to estimate just how long these tube worms could be around. Generally, they found these tube worms could live 100 to 200 years, but the largest of them could live 300 years.

Escapardia laminata lives so long partially because they live in such a safe place. It’s relatively rare for a tube worm living deep in the Gulf of Mexico, at least three-fifths of a mile or so down, to encounter a threat that kills them. So why not just keep living? The evidence in this new study, its authors say, supports that theory that, in absence of threats and high rates of death, evolution selects for the members of the species who live the longest. Eventually you get 300 year old tube worms.

Tube worms are not the longest lived creatures in the sea, though. The marine clam Arctica islandica is thought to be able to live more than 500 years. The longest animal, in length, is also thought to be a sea creature—the bootlace worm, which is grossly long. Oceans! There’s a lot of weird stuff that happens there.