Coral reefs all over the world are home to some of the strangest and most beautiful animals on our planet. One trip out to our reef is all you need to know that the Florida Keys are no exception. At any time you may see sea turtles, sharks or a wide variety of fish that call our reef home. However, some of the animals that live there may not be as obvious, as our attention may be grabbed by the assortment of life around us. If you look closely at the reef, you may see small feather-like projections sticking out. These projections are not part of the coral, but animals that are part of the reef community. These small feathery animals are a type of worm called a Christmas tree worm.
Christmas tree worms live in tropical oceans all over the world and come in a wide variety of colors. Looking closely at these worms, it’s no surprise why they were given their common name. The visible parts of these worms bear a striking resemblance to the pine or fir trees that are often found in homes during the holiday season. The part of the worm that is seen by visitors to the reef is called the crown. The “branches” that make up the crown are hair-like structures that are used to breathe and to catch food. Christmas tree worms feed on microscopic plants called phytoplankton. However, the crown is just one part of the worm. The rest of the animal is buried inside of the coral. When the worm is disturbed, it will pull the crown inside of the burrow and protect itself by closing the operculum, a structure that serves as a door to shut out hungry fish. The average length of a Christmas tree worm is about 1 to 1.5 inches.
Florida Keys Diving
The only way to see these animals in their natural habitat is to get out and explore the reef. To get up close and personal with the amazing beauty of all the life at the reef, take a snorkel or dive trip at one of the Florida State Parks. Not much of a swimmer? Glass-bottom boat tours are also offered, so you can explore without getting your feet wet. No matter who you are or where you’re from, a trip to the reef will show you another aspect of the real Florida. Snorkel and glass-bottom boat trips leave daily from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Bahia Honda State Park.
Visit FloridaStateParks.com to plan your upcoming adventure. Lindsey Crews is a park ranger at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.