PHYLUM Annelida
CLASS Polychaeta
ORDER Terebellida
FAMILY Sabellariidae
GENUS Phragmatopoma
SPECIES lapidosa-Florida & Atlantic to South America; californica-
Pacific northeast

From the top, this appears like a chunk of sand with a small shell nearby. However, upon closer examination(click on the eArt Scan) you can see the openings of many tubes running down into the sand. See side and bottom views below

Who could possibly be interested in some very small segmented worms which life in the turbulent, sediment-laden shallow waters found along the coast of oceans. Believe it or not, these tiny creatures help to build reefs which help protect the shorelines from storms and create areas where other marine life can flourish.

Below are some eArt Scans of some reef-building tube worms which your PMNS Curator collected near Hallandale Beach (a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale), Florida in about 2002. When I first saw them I was startled. Here was a smooth beach strewn with shells and often a lot of coral and suddenly it looks like someone was building a sand castle which didn't get washed away by the tide.

When I started examining the 'sand castle' I discovered that it was made of a great number of small tubes. I found I could collect a good sized chunk of this material for later viewing and determination of what it was. I put the specimen in a box and then learned that it became quite odoriferous. That was because it was full of dying tube worms. Having left it alone now for several years, I determined to put it on this website with some of my eArt Scans (the new art form I have created) so that other folks might see this interesting life form, which I didn't find any pictures of on the net when I searched (only drawings). Of course I don't have eArt Scans of the worms (they have deteriorated and disappeared, but I certainly have some eArt Scans of their tubes, which I think you will find interesting. I will provide some additional information which I have gleaned on these important little critters.

[simply click on an eArt Scan to see the image in full monitor screen]

Top view of this group of reef-building tube worms Side view of this group of reef-building tube worms
Side view of this group of reef-building tube worms Bottom view of this group of reef-building tube worms

The geographic range of Sabellariid worms: Western Atlantic from the east coast of Florida to Rio Grande do Sul near Santa Catarina in Brazil (Hartman 1944; Kirtley and Tanner 1968; DeJorge et al. 1969); also present, but rare, long the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (Potts 1979). Distribution in Florida extends about 320 km (198 statute miles) from Cape Canaveral, Brevard County, to Key Biscayne, Dade County (Kirtley 1966; Kirtley and Tanner 1968). Typically intertidal or subtidal (i.e. within or just seaward of the surf zone) along exposed beaches subject to high-energy wave action (Multer and Milliman 1967; Kirtley and Tanner 1968; DeJorge et al 1969), but present to depths of 100 m (328 feet) (Kirtley and Tanner 1968). Present also along channels at inlets in Florida) characterized by swift tidal currents (Gore et al. 1978). The distribution of the reef-building tube worm in southern Florida is illustrated in Figure 2. from the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is also the source for the information just shown above. This is from Biological Report 82(11.1 15) dated December, 1989. See their website at http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/wdb/pub/1053.pdf. Our appreciation for this sizeable amount of information upon this important marine animal.

I am including three drawings from the above site and Report: Figure 1. is a Reef-building tube worm: a. feeding position; b. withdrawn into tube; Figure 2. the Distribution of the Reef-building tube worm in south Florida; and Figure 3. the drawing of the Reef-building tube worm in situ in the sand with the feeding cilia showing.

[simply click on an eArt Scan to see the image in full monitor screen]

Figure #1.
Reef-Building Tube Worm:
a. Feeding position b. withdrawn into tube
Figure #3.
Reef-building tube worm in situ in the sand with the feeding cilia showing
Figure #2.
Distribution of the Reef-building tube worm in south Florida

The gametes of the AtlanticPhragmatopoma lapidosa (Florida to Brazil and rarely the coast of the Gulf of Mexico) and the gametes of the northeast PacificPhragmatopoma californica suggest the two taxa are conspecific subspecies (Pawlik 1988).

Note, Sabellariid worms are also found in the tidal zones of the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific. See website at http://www.usp.ac.fj/spjns/volume22/pohler.pdf. They are probably found in a lot of areas of the world as well.

The Sabellariid worms are known as reef-building tube worms, are also called: sand-tube worm, honeycomb worm, reef-building polychaete and tube-building marine polychaete.

Sabellariid worms are amazingly able to thrive in the shallow waters of the near beach marine waters along the Atlantic coastline of Florida. The turbulent, sediment-laden water there, with the reciprocal in and out wave motion, provides the microplankton upon which the Sabellariid worms feed and removes their metabolic wastes. The churning up of sand-sized particles in this near shore area would be fatal to coral, but are not much of a problem to the Sabellariid worms. The Sabellariid worm uses these particles to build its own protective tube, connecting each worm's tube with those of many others to build quite a sand castle together.

The Sabellariid worms appear in densities of between 15,000 to 60,000 individuals per square meter (a square meter is 10.76 sq. feet) and have lie spans of 10½ years according to Florida Ocenographic Coastal Center. You can find out more information on Sabellariid worms at their website which is http://www.floridaoceanographic.org/environ/worm_reef2.htm. Our appreciation to this good site for their contribution to this area of science. They are located on Hutchinson Island, where your curator has collected wonderful shells from the beaches there.

Here is some technical stuff from the Biological Report 82(11.1 15) dated December, 1989:

MORPHOLOGY AND IDENTIFICATION AIDS: Sabellariids are obligate agglutinated-sand tube-dwelling colonial polychaetes (as opposed to annelids that secrete calcareous or membranous tubes) that have elongate, segmented, cylindrical bodies divided into four parts (proceeding posteriorly): the "head" or opercular stalk (consisting of a prostomium or pre-oral region fused to a peristomium or post-oral region), and the paranthoracic, abdominal, and caudal regions. The head of the reef-building tube work has an anterior opercular disk that serves as a "stopper" when the worm retracts into its tube. An array of hard, clawlike paleae (setae) on the operculum are used to manipulate sand grains being cemented into the tube. Two rows of ciliated feeding tentacles run lengthwise ventrally along the head. The ventral mouth, with its pair of feeding palps, lies behind and between the rows of feeding tentacles. The lower lip of the mouth is surrounded by the horseshoe-shaped building organ that supplies the proteinaceous cement for the tube construction. The parathoracic region consists of three segments, each with biramous parapodia (fleshly lateral appendages, each with a dorsal and a ventral cirrus), simple branchier (gills), and a ventral muscular plate. About 32 segments make up the abdomen; these possess notopodia (dorsal branches of the parapodia), neuropodia (ventral branches of the parapodia), branchier, and numerous small hook-like uncini (Setae) on the parapodia that anchor the body to the surrounding tube wall. The cylindrical caudal region terminates in the anus. Maximum total length is about 30 to 40 mm (1.1811 to 1.5748 inches). Worms 15 to 25 mm (.59055 to .98.425 inches) long are 30 to 40 mg (.0010581 to .0014108 ounces) wet weight. The preceding description was summarized from Kirtley (1966, 1968), Kirtley and Tanner (1968), DeJorge et al. (1969), and Parker (1982).
In southeastern Florida, identification of the reef-building tube worm is facilitated by recognition of the unique mound-like reefs built up by successive colonizations of the worms. These may range from fist-sized lumps attached to pilings to extensive reefs several hundred meters wide and several kilometers long, paralleling the beach (Kirtley 1966; Kirtley and Tanner 1968). Individual hears are typically low and rounded resembling cushions. They may rise as much as 2 m above the surround substrate, but the "living" portion is seldom as much as 1 m high (Kirtley 1966). The reefs are general a dark, drab brown resulting from the aggregate coloration of sand, shell hash, and mineral grains from which they are constructed. the mounds are friable and easily broken by hand. The vertically arranged, parallel worm tubes give the reefs a honeycomb appearance. Tube densities average about 5 per square centimeter (Multer and Milliman 1967). Internal diameters of the tubes are about 2 to 4 mm; external diameters at the aperture range from 4 to 10 mm, depending on worm density (Multer and Milliman 1967; Kirtley 1968). Individual tubes are curved but intertwine little (Multer and Milliman 1967). A hood-like protrusion extends partly around the rim of each tube (Kirtley 1966; Multer and Milliman 1967). The lower ends are sealed. Kirtley (1966) stated that under optimal conditions, individual tubes reach a maximum length of about 10 cm, but Gram (1968) reported that tubes are generally 15 to 30 cm long.

Note: The tubes I collected from Hallandale Beach, Florida were approx. 10 cm long and the openings were about 1 mm--your PMNS Curator--Terry Proctor, J.D.


The reefs constructed by reef-building tube worms along the southeast coast of Florida are significant both geologically and biologically. Reefs of the sand tubes of reef-building tube worms extend within their geographic range for hundreds of kilometers (note: a kilometer = .6214 statute mile and .5396 nautical mile, hence we are also talking hundreds of miles) of coastline (Kirtley and Tanner 1968). The ability of the worms to thrive under high-energy breaker conditions and to extend their colonial tube masses upward and seaward by extraction and agglutination of littoral drift materials makes them important vectors in coastline development. Beachrock, converted from the reefs, and sand impounded on their landward sides provide for actual progradation of beaches (Kirtley and Tanner 1968). By sorting out flat shell fragments and the heavier suspended particles in littoral drift, tube construction by the worms results in the retention of beach sediment (Emery 1963; Multer and Milliman 1967; Gram 1968). The cracks and crevices of the reefs act as traps for sediment and shell fragments, thereby further contributing to sediment retention (Gram 1968). Being wave resistant, the reefs protect the shore against wave attack and retard erosion (Multer and Milliman 1967; Mehta 1973). It appears likely that reef-building tube worms are at least in part responsible for the formation and maintenance of beaches and barrier islands in southeast Florida (Kirtley and Tanner 1968).

The reefs are the primary basis for an elaborate stable marine community (Kirtley and Tanner 1968; Narchi 1973, 1974; Gore et al. 1978; Gilmore et al 1981; van Montfrans 1981). They provide hard and stable substrate, shelter, and food, and thereby allow many species to inhabit the surf zone, an area where most would normally be unable to survive (Gore et al. 1978).

For life history, ecological role, associated species, predators, competitors, spawning, environmental requirements, and other information go to the http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/wdb/pub/1053.pdf and http://www.floridaoceanographic.org/environ/worm_reef2.htm.
I noted with interest that in the Fiji Island website shown above, there was a photo of reef-building tube worm clustered tubes in the roofs of Mangroves. Clearly the two are important together to build land and reefs.