Ryan Photographic - Eunicidae - Bristle worms
The family Eunicidae contains 799 species in 33 genera. They have an ancient lineage with fossil jaws dating back 485 million years.
The eunicids include the biggest known polychaete, the bobbit worm (also known less graphically as the sand-striker), which can reach 3m in length. While the bobbit worm is totally carnivorous, most other members of this family are omnivores.
Some eunicids are free-living, while others live in burrows or papery or parchment-like tubes they secrete themselves.
Reproduction varies widely, but some of the eunicids exhibit the extraordinary behavior of producing epitokes. These give rise to the Polynesian delicacy of palolo, (balolo in Fiji). As the worms mature they bud reproductive segments at the rear of the worm. This section, the epitoke, has eyes and is capable of swimming. At the right phase of the moon (a few days after the full moon in October/November - June in the Caribbean) the epitoke breaks off and swims towards the surface where it eventually breaks open, releasing eggs or sperm into the water. This phenomenon is a great example of the "Big Bang" theory. Basically so many eggs are released that predators are satiated (many corals exhibit the same phenomenon).
Many native peoples relish palolo or balolo.
I was on a night dive with Kat Ryan and Sarah Tundermann in Belize when we encountered a mass emergence of epitokes - I got several in my ears. They also got into our wetsuits and hair - a somewhat unpleasant experience. Our dive guide agreed and cut the dive short. In the morning there were dried epitokes in bed with us. But it did enable me to get photos of this extraordinary event.
Eunice fucata (identification tentative)
Sarah Tundermann and Kat Ryan with epitokes Belize
Epitokes and diver Belize, this and the next couple of photos show increasing denisty of epitokes as they are attracted to the light.
The maelstrom intensifies
This was it - we got out of Dodge!
This epitoke appears to have been trapped by the coral, it was thousands of these in the above photos. It is believed to be Eunice fucata.