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Giant Worms in Gulf of Mexico 250 Years Old
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) FEBRUARY 04, 2000 — Giant worms living 1,700 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico have been found to be up to 250 years old — a record for creatures without a backbone, scientists say.

Researchers from Penn State University reported their findings in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The tube worms, whose scientific name is Lamellibrachia, do not eat; they survive by absorbing energy from chemicals that seep up through cracks in the sea floor.

The grow to lengths of 10 feet or more. That's not a record for worms. That distinction goes to a tapeworm that lives in the intestines of whales.

This species is a fairly new discovery. Scientists learned about it in the 1980s. The worms live in clusters of millions, covering acres of ocean floor. Each worm is protected by a thin, flexible, shell-like tube.

Some tortoises live even longer. And marine biologist Charles Fisher said colonies of coral live for centuries. But Lamellibrachia hold the age record for a single invertebrate organism, he said.

Finding out the age of a giant sea worm is a bit more complex than counting the rings of a tree. Fisher and his colleagues rode a submarine to the bottom of the gulf, where they used robotic arms to mark the ends of the tubes. Three months later, they returned and measured how much the worms had grown. They kept returning and measuring every few months for four years.

Once they had that data, they were able to calculate how long it would have taken for the worms to grow to their existing lengths.

What's the secret to this longevity?

One hypothesis is that the Lamellibrachia worms live in an environment where they are less likely to get bruised, broken or run out of the energy they absorb.

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