Worms

Below are some worms you might find out about in the rocky intertidal or on the beaches. It isn’t an extensive set. I don’t flip rocks, dig around in the mussel beds, or otherwise do much disturbing—the things you would need to do to find many very cool worms. A few worms make above-ground appearances on the beaches, and I confess I’ve turned a spade or two of sand to uncover the occupant of a likely burrow entrance. Identifying worms is a challenge, but that’s part of the fun. (I can usually get close with the field guides and online resources listed at the bottom of this page. When I can’t, it’s a delicious mystery.) This page is just a catalog of the worms I’ve found, my photographic take, and a few words if I’ve thought of something that resonates with me and hasn’t been over-said.

I use the organization followed by Lamb and Hanby (2005). Common names are my choice. I refer to WoRMS for scientific names, and I learn a ton by browsing the natural history riches in Kozloff’s (1993) pages. All photos are from northern Oregon unless noted.

Now, let the worms be upon you!

The ribbon worms can be hard to identify, and the green one below is no exception. It’s an expected find during low light and high moisture conditions in and around the mussel beds. I’m not sure its color is the best identification starting point. Still, in the absence of much else besides its size and habitat, it could be Emplectonema gracile—I haven’t confirmed it, though. To see other takes on green ribbon worms, it’s worth looking at the iNaturalist page on Emplectonema.

This intertidal predator might be the ribbon worm Amphiporus, maybe something like Amphiporus formidabilis. Whatever it is, it’s got decent length and is abundant in and around the mussel beds. They’re active on the surface when it’s cool and moist, and light levels are low. It’s worth taking a look at the iNaturalist page on Amphiporus. Here’s a video of this ribbon worm exploring the rocks at low tide.

Orange ribbon worms are one of the brightest intertidal inhabitants. There is a decent chance those shown below are Tubulanus polymorphus, but I make no promises, as with the other ribbon worms. For more examples, see the iNaturalist page on Tubulanus polymorphus.

Here’s a good-sized and beautiful worm and a bit fragile down toward the tail. I’ve seen it a few times when it appeared on the surface of exposed sandy beaches early in the morning during low tides. The upper right image shows four jaws, a trait Glycera is known for, so that’s a good starting place for determining what it is. In that spirit, the INaturalist page on Glycera offers excellent browsing.

Nephtys
I’ve always thought the worms shown below are Nephtys californiensis, supposedly the most substantial goddess worm you’ll find on the clean sandy beaches of the outer coast. Still, like all things worm, there are alternatives. Healthy specimens are somewhat iridescent.

Nereis
This is probably Nereis vexillosa, the pile worm. They’re easy to find on the exposed shore crawling around in the mussel beds under low light conditions. I’ve also seen them out on the sand and in shallow sand-filled pools around the time of spring and summer low tides. Kozloff describes the swarming behavior of ripe adults (females are redder posteriorly than males).

Here are examples from the rocks in and around mussel beds where Nereis can be reliably found when the timing of the tides permits.

Below, examples of worms out and about on the sand, not too far from rocks that support mussel beds in my experience.

Examples from shallow sand-filled pools.

I wrote a few more words about this wonderful worm with a few other photos in Worm Watching.

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Dodecaceria
I’m pretty sure this colonial worm is Dodecaceria pacifica. If it is, you might know it as Dodecaceria fewkesi, but things change, and it now goes by Dodecaceria pacifica, at least in some circles. The first time I touched a mound, its rough hardness surprised me. Besides the worms within, the structures are composed of calcareous tubes embedded in cemented sand, so they can handle rough surf. Even so, most I’ve seen are set back slightly or located on indirect exposures. Colonies I’ve come across have been mounted on vertical surfaces or, nearly so, either big walls or the edges of tidepools. Eroded colony fragments, sometimes called false brain coral, are a treat to find washed up on the beach or among the cobbles. I share a few more words and images in Construction on the Coast.

I only know this worm from its clear tubes, which wash up abundantly on exposed sandy beaches. When folks in my orbit call them cellophane tube worms, they refer to Spiochaetopterus costarum. Here’s a short Seagrant/Hatfield Visitor Center piece on them with a photo of the tubes and a bit of cheerleading for cellophane tube worm as a common name. If that’s what they are, Lamb and Hanby use jointed three-section tubeworm, and the iNaturalist crowd goes with glassy tubeworm. Whatever way you lean, look for them in the fresh wrack.

References

Harbo, R. M. 2011. Whelks to Whales: Coastal Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest. 2nd ed. Harbour Publishing Co.

Kozloff, E. N. 1993. Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast. 3rd ed. University of Washington Press.

Lamb, A. and B. P. Hanby. 2005. Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest. Harbour Publishing.

Light, S. F., 2007. The Light & Smith Manual: Intertidal Invertebrates from Central California to Oregon. 4th ed., edited by J. T. Carlton. University of California Press.

Sept. J. D. 2019. The New Beachcomber’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest. Harbour Publishing.


Online Resources

Biodiversity of the Central Coast’s Marine Worms page

Friends of Netarts Bay WEBS Worms page

It’s worth scrolling down to worms in Common Sea Life of Southeastern Alaska: A field guide by Aaron Baldwin & Paul Norwood. Accessed 11/01/2022.

Cowles, D. (2004). Tubulanus polymorphus Renier, 1804Invertebrates of the Salish Sea. Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory. Accessed 11/03/2022.

Cowles, D. (2009). Nereis vexillosa Grube, 1851Invertebrates of the Salish Sea. Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory. Accessed 11/04/2022.

iNaturalist’s pages on worms are full of good browsing material. Besides the links provided above, here are some others I looked at while preparing this page:

Fringed Filament Worm (Dodecaceria fewkesi)

Glassy Tubeworm (Spiochaetopterus costarum ssp. pottsi)


I updated this page on December 4, 2022