National Geographic : 1946 Jun
The Worm Turns BY S:\N1i.I, S\NDROF JJ'itlh Illustrations from Photographs by Ivan Flve ON A SAN IDY beach of Long Island, New York, a fisherman added a fine sea bass to his catch. "That's sure a beauty!" shouted an envious bystander above the rolling surf. The angler became voluble. "Yeah, not bad. It's the bait. Them fish just love it." He picked a giant-sized worm from the juicy collection in the bait bucket and neatly threaded it onto his hook. "Cost me 60 cents a dozen, and wuth a sight more. Come down all the way from a little place called Wiscasset, Maine." Because this bait has been so successful in luring millions of wary game fish, an unusual industry has boomed to prominence in recent years, and the tidewater flats of Maine these days are dotted with mud-splattered figures raking feverishly into the soft, wet earth. More than 122 million worms have been picked by the diggers of Maine in a single year. A strange crop to harvest; yet this lowly creature has produced a year's cash return of more than a quarter of a million dollars and is a source of employment to hundreds of dig gers, distributors, and dealers. The Maine worm has established such a reputation that the demand far exceeds the available supply. Lair of the Maine Worm Digger The lair of the Maine worm digger lies centered chiefly in picturesque and peaceful Wiscasset, distinguished for its venerable, undisturbed harbor and industrious citizens.* Settled in 1734, the town is situated on the Sheepscot River about sixteen miles from its entrance to the sea. The harbor afforded a safe natural anchorage for sailing vessels of old when storms forced their captains to seek refuge. Today many of the colonial homes they built are a mecca for the artists and other visitors who flock to Wiscasset every summer. On the shores of Long Island, before 1932, limited quantities of the worms were found. There was no abundance, however, and land owners objected to digging up their beaches; so ever-searching dealers explored farther north to Fairfield, Connecticut, and Boston, Massachusetts, finding meager quantities. The big strike in and around Wiscasset came in 1933. Perhaps the worms preferred the climate of Maine, as many humans do in summer, or maybe too much digging and fail ure to initiate conservation measures depleted the supply in other localities. These giants of their species are of two principal types: the bloodworm (Glycera americana) and the sandworm (Nereis, or Neanthes, virens). The former also is called the proboscis worm because its front end is extended or retracted at will and acts as a burrowing organ. Glycera's mouth is armed with four tiny, black, curved "teeth," actually jaws, which may fasten onto a finger, creating the sensation of a bee sting and producing a painful swelling in persons allergic to the bite (pp. 781, 785). Bloodworms range from pink to red and have short finlike appendages along the sides, with firm, round, barely visible segments under the smooth skin. They are found in the surface layer of soft mud, in burrows lined with their own mucous secretion. Although in some cases the bloodworm has reached a phenomenal length of more than three feet, the average is from six to eight inches. Abnormal worms are sometimes found, and one freak had two tails (page 784). Sandworm Favored for Vivid Color The sandworm is the more sought after for use as bait, because of its unusual size and lustrous coloring. It has a flat appearance, with obvious segments, of which a mature worm will have about two hundred, and their protruding, fleshy appendages are used for propulsion (page 779). The proboscis, which is partly withdrawn inside the body, has teeth that are saw-shaped pincers for feeding. In rare instances sand worms have exceeded four feet in length, but normal size runs from 10 to 18 inches. The brilliant colors of the worm are actually due to blood vessels seen through its steel blue and green skin. Coloring varies with the locality, ranging from vivid orange red to cloudy black. Worms of the latter color are poor bait and valueless on the market. The sandworm's iridescence and dazzling appearance are the secret of its attraction for fish. While an ordinary garden angleworm will turn white in salt water, both bloodworm and sandworm remain colorful and lively in their natural element, the ocean. The sex life of the sandworm is simple. Cells are separated from the segments of the female, and coincidentally the male worm, which has been attracted, discharges its sperm. * See "Maine, the Outpost State," by George Otis Smith, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, May, 1935.