Worm Tale

Main page content

In a matter of minutes UW Tacoma's Dr. Megan Schwartz discovered a new species and bumped into UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

Photo above courtesy Megan Schwartz via University of Puget Sound

You never know what the tide will bring in: new species, or even the occasional UW President. Dr. Megan Schwartz has surveyed False Bay for 18 years, and on a recent trip with students, she made the discovery of a new species of nemertean, or as they are more commonly known, ribbon worms.

Schwartz discovered the worm with her students during the lowest tide of the year at False Bay, one of the San Juan Island Marine Preserves, located just off shore from UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories. She was approached soon after by another curious mind, UW President Ana Mari Cauce. Although she was there by pure coincidence, Cauce was incredibly eager to learn about Schwartz’s new finding and proceeded to take a picture of Schwartz with the worm, which promptly became her new Facebook profile picture. Dr. Schwartz's moment of discovery captured by UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

There are over 1,000 known species of ribbon worm all over the planet, and many more as yet undiscovered. They vary in size, length, and color but the major commonality between them is their unique organ, the proboscis, located at the anterior end of their bodies, which captures and paralyzes their prey. Most ribbon worms are smaller than 10 centimeters, while some are as long as 60 meters. Schwartz laughed and explained, "If you really love a worm you'll cut it up into 17 different pieces and put it into 17 different fixatives so that you can understand it in 17 different ways," because, largely, they remain understudied.

You might wonder why someone would devote 22 years of her life to worms. "I thought I was going to be an MD and I took vertebrate anatomy,” said Schwartz. She thought, “that's an interesting way to be an animal, you have vertebrae and these two floppy appendages in the front and in the back (arms and legs), that's pretty much the pattern for vertebrates." After taking a course in invertebrate zoology at a marine lab, Schwartz found she was even more fascinated by the myriad forms of animals without spines, and thus pursued a career as an invertebrate zoologist.

Schwartz grew up in downtown Chicago, always fascinated by biology, but the most obvious species around were pigeons and rats. She earned her undergraduate degree in biology from Bryn Mawr College, after which she attended Wake Forest University for her Master's degree. After moving to the Puget Sound area with her husband 13 years ago she earned her Ph.D. from George Washington University.

A large focus of her research is marine biodiversity. Schwartz describes it thusly: “Like dandelion seeds travel in the wind, larvae travel in the water.” Species of nemerteans can be traced across the globe, a path she has followed personally. If a nemertean can be found there, she likely will be too. Her research has even taken her to Antarctica, where she found a species that she later realized had excreted acid onto her hand.

Documenting these species is crucial because they may not be around forever. If you don’t know a species exists, she asks, “How can you care for and protect it?” Understanding the natural history of the world around us provides context, not just for human life, but for the plethora of other living things around us. Schwartz integrates the work of late UW zoologist Robert T. Paine, who is best known for his theorization of keystone species, crucial species in an ecosystem upon which other species rely. Schwartz theorizes that nemerteans may be keystone species in many habitats, making their documentation a high priority.

In total Schwartz has discovered nearly 80 species of nemertean, with 10 currently documented, and two awaiting documentation, including the worm discovered with President Cauce. As she continues her research she looks to Papua New Guinea and Ecuador for their cloud rainforests, where even hundreds of feet up in the trees terrestrial nemerteans can be found.

Reflecting on her feelings at the moment she realizes a find is actually a new species, Schwartz says, “Discovering new species is what keeps me moving forward. It's like the best rollercoaster ever really—finding something no one ever knew about.”

Written by: 
Zak Kaletka / August 15, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu