Ward B. Strong/BC Ministry of Forests, Lands
Oct. 26, 2012 --
As the Nikon Small World Competition shows, it really is a small world, after all -- a small, disgusting and occasionally creepy world that can sometimes escape our vision. Take this photo, for example, of a Dermatobia hominis larva, more commonly known as the human botfly. The black dots on the far right on the larva's body are actually its teeth, which have to be surgically removed its host.
PHOTOS: It's a Nikon Small World After All
Harold Taylor/2012 Nikon Small World Competit
This 30x close-up of a spider head might make your skin crawl at first. But try to remember that this shot is of a common house spider, so there could be a few of these little guys crawling in the space around you right now, and you might not even know it. Feel better?
Paul Appleton/University of Dundee College of
In case you've ever wondered what the inside of a mouse colon looks like, Christmas came early this year. This is it. Or at least, this is the surface of a mouse colon at 350x magnification.
Alain Bocquillon/2012 Nikon Small World Compe
Whoever thought small things were cute clearly was not acquainted with this parasitic mite. Known as Varroa destructor and seen here at 4x magnification, this mite preys on honey bees and may even play a role in colony collapse disorder.
Michael John Bridge/University of Utah HSC Co
Looking at this image, it almost appears like a rainbow-colored, slightly misshapen heart. In fact, the photo shows the eye organ inside a fruit fry larvae magnified 60x.
Geir Drange/2012 Nikon Small World Images
This photo would almost be heartwarming were it not an extreme close-up of an insect. An ant carries its larva in this 5x magnification shot.
David Maitland/2012 Nikon Small World Images
This 150x magnified shot of a mosquito head is almost enough to make you start scratching an itch you don't really have.
Walter Piorkowski/2012 Nikon Small World Imag
This newborn lynx spiderlings against what appears to be a snowy background shot at 6x magnification can send a chill down your spine that even the heaviest winter coat won't help you with.
Walter Piorkowski/2012 Nikon Small World Imag
The business end of a spider is magnified 18x in this photo.
Nikola Rahme/2012 Nikon Small World Images
A mite crawling on the eye of a Cinnabar flat beetle at 18x magnification shows the massive size different between these two insects.
So-called zombie worms -- and yes, they actually exist -- like to munch on whale bones for dinner. The creatures also use the bones for shelter. Spread throughout the world's oceans, zombie worms are quite adept at making the bones of whales and other large marine animals look like Swiss cheese.
But these worms don't have any mouthparts with which to gnaw the holes. So how do they do it? A study published in the May 1 online edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that rather than being "bone-drilling" worms, they're actually "bone-dissolving" worms: The worms’ skin produces acid in large quantities to break down bones.
The acid is produced by proton pumps, protein-containing structures abundant in the front end of the worm's body, said Martin Tresguerres, a marine physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
'Off the charts'
Tresguerres has studied these acid-secreting structures in many other animals, including sharks and various fish. But he hasn't seen anything like this before. "The amount of proton pumps they have is off the charts," he told OurAmazingPlanet.
The cellular mechanism used to produce the acid is nearly identical to that used in osteoclasts, the human cells that break down bone so that it can be rebuilt. Insight into how the worm dissolves bone could possibly be applied to osteoclasts, Tresguerres said. Human kidneys also contain similar proton pumps involved in processing bodily waste, he added.
Even stranger, Tresguerres said, is that the worms lack digestive systems. The study suggests the acid the worms produce frees collagen and other proteins from the whale bones, but how they are broken down and absorbed by the worms is unclear. Tresguerres, along with co-authors Sigrid Katz and Greg Rouse, think that symbiotic bacteria help the animals digest the food.
The worms were first discovered by Rouse and colleagues in 2002 off the California coast in an underwater valley called the Monterey Submarine Canyon.
There are multiple species of these zombie worms, which belong to the Osedax genus. The worms’ closest relatives, which also lack guts and mouths, inhabit deep-sea hydrothermal vents and rely on a different set of bacteria to allow them to survive in these hot and acidic conditions.
More From LiveScience:
Extreme Life on Earth: 8 Bizarre Creatures
Deep-Sea Creepy-Crawlies: Images of Acorn Worms
Gallery: Creatures from the Census of Marine Life
Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.