These bone-munching worms have been named after Jabba the Hutt, because of the obvious resemblance.
Photo: 2005 MBARI

Jabba the Hutt—the iconic slug-like mobster from the Star Wars franchise—finally has a real world namesake befitting his ugliness. Osedax jabba is one of 14 newly-named zombie worms, tiny, mouthless, eyeless creatures that devour animal bones in the ocean’s depths.

Jabba’s earthly brethren were found chewing their way through the head of a dead baleen whale nearly 10,000 feet below the surface in Monterey Submarine Canyon.

Zombie worms or bone-eating worms—genus Osedax—are some of the most delightfully gruesome little beasties out there, using their root-like tendrils to squirt bone-dissolving acid into the skeletons of the dead before extracting the tasty collagen inside with the help of a small zoo of bacteria. The first two species were discovered in Monterey Canyon in the early 2000s, with nine more species named around the world in the decade that followed.

Osedax packadorum is a newly-named species honoring the Packard family, whcih funds research at MBARI.
Photo: 2008 MBARI

Now the genus is adding 14 additional species to its ranks, bringing the total number of named zombie worms to 25, thanks to the tireless work of some of the same Monterey-based scientists who established the genus’ existence a decade ago (and who should really be applauded for their dedication to
deep sea bone-maggots). A lot of effort went into this new study, which involved numerous remote operated vehicle (ROV) trips off the shores of Monterey over the course of 15 years to observe zombie worms at various depths and eventually bringing them back to the lab and analyzing their DNA.

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Oh, and because zombie worm scientists do not mess around, the research also entailed dropping scavenged whale carcasses to bait the worms out. Those carcasses first had to be hacked up with machetes (to “ventilate” them, as study co-author Shannon Johnson, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute , put it to Earther), before getting hauled out to sea and sunk using the weight of several tons of spent train wheels.

“We probably had more fun doing that stinky job than anything else in my career,” lead study author Bob Vrijenhoek reminisced to Earther.

He added that over the years, the team dropped all manner of other worm bait into the deep, including cow, turkey and turtle bones, which, at the risk of stating the obvious, are not typical lunch options miles below the surface. No matter: The zombie worms ate it all.

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This, Johnson said, supports the hypothesis that zombie worms are of a very old lineage, possibly one that originated in the Cretaceous period some 146-66 million years ago, where it became adapted to digesting the bones of birds and massive reptiles. Fossil evidence also supports this idea.

Osedax worms growing on the vertebrae of a dead whale.
Photo: 2006 MBARI

Most of the zombie worms described in the recent paper are named after scientists or ROVs involved in the research. But Johnson felt that Osedax jabba’s trunk was too reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt’s slug-like appearance to name it after anything else. She did have one qualm about the name, though.

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“Jabba’s not the greatest dude in the world, and this worm is a giant female,” Johnson said, explaining that zombie worms are an aggressively feminist society, with harems of microscopic males living inside their much larger, more formidable bone-juicing mates.

“Maybe I should have named it after Leia,” she mused.

There’s plenty more work to be done. As the authors note in the paper, there’s evidence for 15 other species from bones collected in Monterey Canyon alone. Other potential zombie worms around the world are known only by snippets of DNA researchers have dumped onto online repositories, but which require further study and verificiation. No doubt Osedax will continue welcoming bone-munchers into the clan for years to come.

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“[The diversity] may be just as complex everywhere else,” Vrijenhoek said.

The important question, though, is when the hell are we going to get an zombie worm named after the Exogorth?