Status of the Nemertea as prey in marine ecosystems

Research paper by John J. McDermott

Indexed on: 01 Jul '01Published on: 01 Jul '01Published in: Hydrobiologia


Nemerteans are predators of a wide variety of animals, but little is known of their role as prey for other animals. The presence of toxins in the tissues and secretions of these worms has led to the assumption usually suggested that they are ingested only rarely. However, analysis of a Food Habits Data Base from the United States National Marine Fisheries Service, compiled for fishes collected in the Atlantic Ocean from the Canadian border to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (1973–1990), showed that nemerteans were recovered from the stomachs of 27 species of fishes in 14 families. They were found in 223 of 26 642 (0.84%) fish stomachs examined in the laboratory, but only in 0.09% of 58 812 fish examined in the field. Among species in the former category, for which ≥1000 were examined, the winter flounder, Pseudopleuronectes americanus(Walbaum), and the yellowtail flounder, Limanda ferruginea (Storer), had the greatest frequency of nemerteans, 71 of 1545 (4.6%) and 33 of 1045 (3.2%), respectively. These nemerteans were identified as Nemertea, Cerebratulus sp. or Micrura sp., but it is likely that they were all of a Cerebratulus-like type. Nemerteans have also been recorded from the guts of eight additional species (including four additional families) of fishes collected from the western Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, eastern Pacific Ocean (Washington, Alaska), North Sea and Indian Ocean off South Africa. The black-bellied plover, Pluvialis squatarola(L.), semipalmated plover, Charadrius semipalmatus Bonapart and the herring gull, Larus argentatus Pontoppidan are the only three species known to feed on nemerteans (Cerebratulus lacteus (Leidy) and Paranemertes peregrina Coe by the black-bellied plover and C. lacteus by the other species). Several species of nemerteans are known to ingest other nemerteans, and several arthropods, a squid, and a few other invertebrates also feed on these worms. On the other hand, careful laboratory studies have shown that some members of the Palaeonemertea, Heteronemertea and Hoplonemertea, when fed to various species of fishes, crustaceans (Astacidea, Anomura, Brachyura and Amphipoda) and a polychaete, were rejected, usually violently. There is a history of using large nemerteans, e.g. Cerebratulus lacteus and Polybrachiorhynchus dayi, as bait by sport fishermen in the United States and South Africa. The incongruity of successfuly using these toxic animals to catch fish is discussed in relation to conclusions on the importance of nemerteans as prey in the marine environment.