Christmas tree worms – colorful treasures underwater

Christmas tree worms are colorful marine worms that can be found all over the world in tropical waters. These little creatures are popping out from their tube decorating coral reefs like ornaments a Christmas tree. They are favorites of underwater macro photographers because of their vibrant colors and detailed structure. From this little marine biology summary, you will know what these interesting creatures are and how they live.

10 facts about Christmas tree worms

We love learning about sea creatures we use to spot while snorkeling and hope you share our passion. We have already talked about why lionfish is a dangerous fish and how sea stars move, and today we will teach you a bit about the beautiful Spirobranchus by sharing 10 facts about Christmas Tree Worms.

Tip: To become a responsible snorkeler, learn more about coral and reef species and read some marine life books!

Christmas tree worms live on shallow tropical coral reefs

Spirobranchus can be found on coral reefs waters over the world from the Caribbean to the Indo-Pacific, usually between 10 and 100 ft (3-30 m). Thanks to its shallow water presence, you can see them while snorkeling as well. It seems, there are regions they prefer over others and at some places you can find incredibly big populations. For example, we were impressed by the amount of Christmas tree worms in Thailand while snorkeling in Koh Tao where you can find thousands of them on shallow water reefs!

Koh Nang Yuan Island - Christmas tree worms

They really look like tiny colorful trees

These tiny (1-2 inches -4-5 cm- long) worms have a central tube and two spiraling structures that give them a tree-looking shape. You only can see the feathery part of them that can pink, red, yellow blue, as well as white and brown. The rest of their body, the legs, and the bristles are always in the tube and are about twice as large as the visible feathery part.

They spend their whole life on the same coral

These worms build a calcium carbonate tube in the coral as their home. This tube system is so complex and looks like tree-roots. Depending on the water and reef conditions, they can live up to 40 years. Their normal lifespan is between 10-20 years.

Christmas Tree worms can disappear in milliseconds

They sense movement in the water and can retract when feeling threatened. Moreover, they can seal themselves using an operculum, a specialized body structure that opens and closes like a door and equipped with spines to keep predators away. The worm slowly re-emerges when the surrounding is clear than fully extends.

christmas tree worms

Spirobranchus feed by using their feathers to catch planktons

The hair like cilia that covers their spiraling structure helps them to trap food and pass it to the mouth. Christmas tree worms are filter feeders. Their menu consists of planktons, ciliates, and organic detritus. They filter the small microorganisms from the water by trapping on their plumes and deposit straight into the digestive tract.

Reproduction happens with the help of currents

If it is time to reproduction, the male releasing sperm while the female eggs into the water and fertilization happen. The developed larvae drift with the currents until settle on a coral by constructing the tube where they will live the rest of their life.

They have two sections in their life

Christmas tree worms start their life with a short larval phase. It only lasts for a few hours but maximum several weeks. The larva worms live in open water and feed only on plankton. After settling down on a coral, the adult phase starts by building their home tube.

yellow christmas tree worm

What are their predators?

These tiny tube worms are protecting themselves simply by hiding in their tube but of course, there are some predators in the ocean they feed on them. Usually, sea urchins, crabs and shrimps eat Christmas tree worms as well as some larger reef fish. Although if the predator did not manage to eat the whole worm and caused damage only on the tentacles, the worm is able to regrow in a short time.

Christmas tree worms can save coral reefs

In spite of their small size, the presence of Christmas tree worms is crucial on coral reefs. Like the rainbow parrotfish, they have an important role in keeping marine ecosystems healthy. They can protect the corals from invasive sea stars like the crown of thorns sea star and also preventing the overgrowth of algae. Moreover, it was confirmed that Spirobranchus help coral reefs to recover after coral bleaching events.

Threats to Christmas tree worms

Good news is that these colorful creatures are under no threat of extinction, however, they are also in danger. The coral bleaching, ocean acidification, and rising sea temperatures affect them directly. Unfortunately, they are collected for the aquarium industry as well, but in artificial environment, they live not so long.

Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years experience. She fell in love with the ocean when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea in 2008. Since then , she is traveling all over the world to discover our waters. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. Visiting mega-cities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. She is interested in sustainable traveling and marine conservation. She is hoping to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!