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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

May 8, 2013

Bristle Worms: Aquarium Friend or Foe?

By Patrick Donston


Bristle worms, otherwise known as fire worms (Hermodice carunculata), are annelid (segmented) worms in the class Polychaetae. They can be pests in reef aquariums by being destructive or harmful to corals and tridacnid clams, and they are toxic to people by emitting a painful sting through their hairy barbs known as chaetae.

Introduced to reef aquariums inadvertently as hitchhikers on live rocks or zooanthids, if aquarium conditions favor bristle worms, they will multiply quickly. Bristle worms are a concern for many reefkeepers, thus a lot of questions are being asked about their behavior and eradication.

Bristle Worms

One thing to point out is that there are many species of bristle worms. Not all are harmful to coral or clams and many can be somewhat beneficial as detritivores. You might have customers who believe their clams are dying or being eaten away at night because of bristle worms. Given that most reef tanks have bristle worms, only types of the species Carunculata tend to grow larger and prey on mollusks or soft corals. Most worms from the genus Eurythoe are smaller and usually not a problem.

I like to tell reef hobbyists, "Remember, clams do grow and thrive on ocean sand beds where bristle worms are plenty in numbers; more than your reef tank.”

Clams, as with most sessile invertebrates, have very good defense mechanisms to protect themselves. A healthy clam will more than likely be able to protect itself against tiny bristle worms. Observing bristle worms eating a clam in the morning might be the result of the clam dying first, while the worms act as detritivores, not predators.

It has been documented numerous times that small bristle worm species are harmless and beneficial. They sift sand beds, consuming detritus and other unwanted wastes (Sprung 1994/Delbeek 2002).

You might want your staff to understand that while pests occur in reef habitats, they need to evaluate each situation individually before concluding reasons of concern. As with mantis shrimp, bristle worms might not be a situation to panic about. In fact, the situation might stem from something else, such as individual health or husbandry practices.

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