Fireworms, curse them to a thousand tiny hells

Though my giant swollen hand remains a medical mystery, I now have a suspect. The dread Bearded Fireworm lives on the reef, peaceably crawling about munching on coral polyps. Until…a giant five-fingered hand reaches down from the sky and tried to sample the tunicate that it happens to be crawling on. Then the worm extends its GIANT POISONOUS SPIKES and bam! The offending hand is useless for a week.

They’re not exactly spikes, of course. Most marine worms are polychaetes, also known as bristleworms. Each of their segments has a fleshy protrusion called parapodia, from which protrudes hair-like bristles called setae. (Here’s a nice diagram.) Setae come in all kinds of forms – they can be jointed for traction, hooked for gripping, and so on – but the bearded fireworm’s case, they are hollow and filled with poison. Because of this kickass defense, fireworms fear no predators and are out and about during the day. The one that nailed me must have been small or I would have seen it, but individuals can get up to 12″ long.

Bearded fireworms apparently also have an unfortunate tendency to sneak into people’s aquariums. Googling around brought out some rather desperate threads on how to remove them. I can personally assure these people that gloves are no defense. I wasn’t wearing any pansy neoprene diving gloves, either – when I work with spiky things like nasty spicule-filled tunicates, I wear hardened rubber work gloves. But they were no match for the probable fireworm, no no.

The moral of this story? Looky, no touchy is BY FAR the best way to hang out on a reef. Collecting tunicate samples is way more harrowing than I thought it would be. On top of the fireworm, I almost got nailed by an extraordinarily attractive and extraordinarily toothy Golden Moray yesterday. (Rick would be…so proud. Scroll down for his That’s a Moray Monday series with all the moray goodness you can handle. Except for the golden moray. Rick, do you take requests?)

And sorry, ghouls. I forgot to take a photo of the swollen hand at its peak, what with the science and the doctor and all. Though my thumb still hurts, it is no longer even the slightest bit impressive. You will simply have to use your fervid imagination.

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20 Responses to Fireworms, curse them to a thousand tiny hells

  1. scott says:

    you think that’s hardcore? i have to go to the movies every week! talk about harrowing.

  2. Justin says:

    I guess you didn’t feel it happen? Does that imply the poison has some kind of anesthesia effect, kinda like the stuff in leech saliva?And if so, how is that a defense?

    Either way, glad it wasn’t worse.

  3. for a separate perspective, i accidentally touched a fireworm in honduras once… it was full-on pain from the second i touched it… the setae are stiff, glass-like bristles that feel just like getting nettle thorns stuck in your skin… some lodged in too deep to pull out with my fingers… others protruded and were just as painful as you would expect from a tiny splinter or nettle thorn… when i tried to remove with my finger tips, it was painful just to move them slightly…

    then there’s the toxin that starts lighting-up your nerves at the same time… so take a sewing needle, heat it in a flame, stick that in your finger, then pour some rubbing alcohol on top…

    i would have welcomed an anesthetic effect…

    i had some pretty impressive swelling too…

  4. oh, and is it just me or does “bearded fireworm” sound like some juvenile, fratboy euphemism for genitalia?

    [smirks] bearded fireworm… he he he…

  5. By Rick’s description, the culprit wasn’t a fireworm – or at least, a very small one or a different kind. I didn’t feel it happen. I just had pain and irritation at the base of my thumb that got worse over a couple days.

    As for the euphemistic possibilities – I fear that “fireworm” implies, erm, not the healthiest of genitalia. “Dude! Get your bearded fireworm over to the clinic! They have medicine for that!”

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi, I have a great big fire-worm problem. Initially I went by the advice I gathered online to let them be (when there were only 2) and now (4 dead gorgeous fish later) my aquarium is infested with ~50 of them that are visible.
    I tried to get one out yesterday and must have hurt it in the process (in my first try to pull it out) because it went into hiding and came back spewing there (spores?) all over the tank and that initiated the same response form all of them all over the tank. The tank water turned light pink from all the (spores) particles being spewed out.

    I am one to not harm things but seeing this, I only feel very bad for the rest of the living creatures in my tank. If I could somehow save all the vert and invert creatures, I would not mind boiling my tank to a crisp to sterilize it.

    I can’t believe how lacking the internet is regarding how to get rid of these things safely.

    I suppose I should clean out my tank and start again by first treating with Paraguard for 2 weeks.

    Thanks for reading.

  7. Wow, I enjoyed your neat post.

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  11. Horacio Maco says:

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  12. Wonderful! This really answered my problem, thank you!

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  14. Marinepowah!!!! says:

    I almost touched a bearded fireworm in the beach corals cuz I was using my underwater camera to take pics of corals and fishes then I touched a brain coral then next to it I saw a fire worm then I quickly removed my hand from the next coral!

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