for National Geographic News
It's nearly midnight on the Pacific island of Samoa. Several men are pacing back and forth along the beach, staring at the ocean. One wades into the water and lifts his Coleman lantern. Word spreads quickly: The palolo are swarming.
Whole families grab homemade nets of mosquito netting or cheesecloth and wade into the sea. Men launch boats to scoop up the worms in deeper water. All around them palolo worms are thrashing in vast numbers, as thick as vermicelli soup. The water is milky with mucous.
Time is of the essenceit will all be over in a few short hours. Hardcore palolo connoisseurs grab the wriggling green-and-blue worms and swallow them raw on the spot. Most scoop them up in clumps and dump them into buckets.
The next day there's a celebrationa kind of Thanksgiving feast, Samoan style. The worms are fried in oil or baked into a loaf with coconut milk and onions. A new daily special shows up on local restaurant menus: palolo worm on toast. It's considered quite a delicacy.
What's a palolo worm? Any of more than a dozen species of segmented coral worm that shares certain distinguishing characteristics. In the South Pacific they are relatively well studied, because their annual risings are cause for local festivals.
What does the palolo worm taste like? "A little scratchy," said Kristian Fauchald, research zoologist and curator of worms at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C. Others describe the flavor as a mix of seaweed and caviar. Fishy. Salty. Tart. Nutritious. It may be an acquired taste.
The palolo's curious behavior has attracted the attention of more than just hungry South Pacific islanders. The first biologists to describe the Samoan palolo scientifically, in the 19th century, made an interesting observation: The swarming worm has no head.
What biologists eventually discovered is that the swarming, writhing surface mass is not the actual worm itself, but rather its sperm and egg packets.
The palolo worm makes its home, according to Anja Schulze of the Smithsonian Marine Station, in the shallow reef, where it uses its sizeable jaws to dig itself a burrow in the limestone substrate. Most of the year it lives quietly, feeding on algae and microorganisms, small crustaceans, and even its own young.
As the time approaches for it to spawnwhich in Samoa usually happens in October or early Novemberthe palolo worm undergoes an extraordinary transformation. The organs in its posterior end, except those involved in reproduction, begin to degenerate.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES