Readers of a certain age will remember the story of Mrs Lorena Bobbitt, who in 1993 made world news for taking a kitchen implement to her abusive husband’s private parts. The report remained in the public consciousness for a number of years, which explains why in 1996 a lowly and largely overlooked ocean worm was finally bequeathed a common name – the bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
The bobbit worm is a worm, weaponised. Found in warmer oceans around the world, it buries itself into sediment, leaving only its mouth exposed with its huge, scissor-like jaws open wide. Five antennae protruding from its head act like tripwires. If a fish should accidentally brush past one of them, it has mere milliseconds to flee. The bobbit worm’s razor-sharp mouthparts strike with such velocity that prey is sometimes sliced clean in two.
Spare a thought, therefore, for the aquarium technicians who occasionally stumble upon bobbit worms that have accidentally entered their collections as stowaways. In 2008, staff at the Blue Reef Aquarium in Newquay finally managed to remove their resident bobbit worm, a 1.2-metre specimen (nicknamed Barry), who’d been terrorising the fish. Today, Barry is no longer of this world. But he, and the species he represents, lives on in our nightmares.