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UCSD discovers ‘Elvis worms’ that sparkle like the late singer’s sequins

Scientists from UC San Diego have discovered four new species of iridescent "Elvis worms" in some of the most remote spots of the world's oceans.
(Courtesy)

The index-finger-long creatures were found in the eastern Pacific, and one species is a biter and fighter.

Remember how the sequins on Elvis Presley’s jumpsuits sparkled when they were hit by a spotlight?

There are iridescent worms in the deep ocean that put on a similar light show, and it turns out they are more diverse and rowdy than scientists once knew.

UC San Diego researchers have discovered four new species of scale worms — creatures also known as “Elvis worms” due to the way light reflects off their overlapping scales.

The worms were found in several places throughout the eastern Pacific Ocean, some in depths that exceeded 10,000 feet.

It’s pitch dark down there. But the worms glittered brightly when exposed to lights from underwater robots and the staffed research submarine Alvin.

“They looked beautiful and iridescent. And there was a lot of shading in their colors,” said Avery Hatch, a doctoral student at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The colors ranged from lavender to aqua to orange, pink and tan, and some areas were dotted with spots that looked like pepper.

The discovery, published last month in the journal ZooKeys, also involved a startling surprise.

Hatch and Scripps marine biologist Greg Rouse learned that P. orphanae, one of the newly named species, is a deep-sea brawler.

The worms, which are about the size of a human index finger, don’t have eyes. But they lunge at one another on the sea floor, trying to bite opponents’ scales.

“We actually saw them interacting and fighting,” Rouse said. “No one has ever noted anything like this.

“They are very abundant; there were worms everywhere. They may be competing for food. But it’s all speculation.”

Rouse acknowledged the value and appeal of the creatures, saying, “Because [the worms] are so charismatic, it helps sell the story of the unknown diversity in the deep sea.”

The species’ names also are part of the story. P. orphanae was named after Victoria Orphan, a geobiologist at Caltech; P. goffrediae was named for Shana Goffredi, a biologist at Occidental College; and P. mineoi refers to Chrysa Mineo, a member of the board of trustees at Scripps Oceanography.

And P. elvisi is named after Elvis Aaron Presley. ◆