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Thousands of so-called “penis fish” — which earned their nickname due to their phallic-looking appearance — washed up on the shore of in California earlier this month.
The organisms, called “fat innkeeper worms,” were spotted all over Drakes Beach in Marin County on December 6 after a recent storm had occurred, Bay Nature reported.
— New York Post (@nypost) December 12, 2019
Bay Nature reports:
The fat innkeeper worm (Urechis caupo) is a type of spoonworm (Ehciuroidea), an order of non-segmented marine worms identified by a spatula-shaped proboscis used for feeding and sometimes grasping or swimming. The fat innkeeper’s family (Urechidae) contains only four species worldwide, collectively known as either innkeeper worms or, well, penis fish. This is why we prefer scientific names. U. caupo is the sole representative in North America, found only from Southern Oregon to Baja, with the bulk of sightings between Bodega Bay and Monterey. So, whether or not you feel privileged by its presence, U. caupo is an almost uniquely California experience, perhaps having the best claim for State Worm.
Yes, the physical design of the fat innkeeper worm has some explaining to do. But the fat innkeeper is perfectly shaped for a life spent underground. Within a beach or mudflat, it digs a U-shaped burrow extending a few feet in length but no wider than the worm itself. The burrow’s front entrance pokes up like a little sand chimney. These can be seen clustered around the low tide line of a mudflat or sandy beach. The backdoor is marked by a pile of worm castings, which get projected out the end of the tunnel with a blast of water from the worm’s hindquarters.
David Ford, who submitted a photo to the magazine of the penis fish on the beach, told Motherboard that they smelled bad and that they littered the beach for miles.
“I didn’t expect to see such bizarre creatures on the ground. I had no idea what they might be…it went on for two miles. I walked for another half hour and they were scattered everywhere,” Ford said. “There were seagulls lined up the beach the whole way having eaten so much they could barely stand. A quarter of them looked like they were still alive. The rest were dead, they had a dead sea-creature smell.”
On the issue of how the penis fish ended up at the beach, Bay Nature wrote:
And then there are phenomena such as the one depicted in this photo. So how did thousands of fat innkeeper worms get strewn across Drakes Beach? Well, we’re seeing the risk of building your home out of sand. Strong storms – especially during El Niño years – are perfectly capable of laying siege to the intertidal zone, breaking apart the sediments, and leaving their contents stranded on shore. Do these high-energy storm events have a long-term impact on fat innkeepers? So far as I know, there are no programs explicitly taking stock of the worms. However, you can help monitor this and other species by continuing to use citizen science to report mass strandings, noting when and where they took place, and roughly how many stranded worms you see.