Lots of wriggle room in truth about viral 'earthworm' image - Australian Associated Press
A person holds a handful of earthworms (file image)
Common earthworms look very different to the image when viewed with a microscope. Image by AP PHOTO

Lots of wriggle room in truth about viral ‘earthworm’ image

AAP FactCheck November 25, 2021
WHAT WAS CLAIMED

An image of a creature with a row of small, pointed teeth shows an earthworm under a microscope.

OUR VERDICT

Mostly false. The image actually shows a deep ocean scale worm, not an earthworm. The two invertebrates bear little resemblance under a microscope.

An image being shared on social media purportedly showing an earthworm viewed under a microscope is actually a worm found deep in the ocean.

The photo features in a Facebook post promoting worm-farming tips and shows a close-up of a grey and pink animal with large jaws and rows of small, pointed teeth.

A screenshot of the Facebook post
 A Facebook post claims the image is of an earthworm seen under a microscope. 

“An earthworm under the microscope,” the post reads. “Isn’t she cute?”

However, the image is of a worm that lives a few kilometres under the sea.

According to the Alamy photo library, the photo was taken in 2012 using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and shows a “deep ocean scale worm (Lepidonotopodium piscesae)”, which was discovered in 1988

“This species of worm inhabits the edges of hydrothermal vent ‘black smokers’ 2,500-3,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean,” the caption reads.

The image also appears on the website of electron microscopy company ThermoFisher Scientific, which says it is a “hydrothermal worm” and has been magnified 525 times using an electron microscope. Elsewhere, it appears in the Science Photo Library, which also states the image shows the deep ocean scale worm.

These sites attribute the photo to Philippe Crassous, who works at Ifremer, the French National Institute for Ocean Science, and is an expert on life found in deep sea hydrothermal environments and scanning microscopy.

It has been published widely, including in the Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Fox News and The Telegraph. All of the sources identify the image as a deep sea hydrothermal worm.

Australia Museum senior research scientist Pat Hutchings, an expert on sea worms, told AAP FactCheck the image is definitely not an earthworm.

“Earthworms do not have such mouthparts,” Dr Hutchings said in an email.

“It is certainly a species of scale worm and presumably this species (Lepidonotopodium piscesae), but I would need to see the whole animal.”

Images of an earthworm under an electron microscope show that the invertebrates have a drastically different mouth to that seen in the sea worm image (see here and here).

The Verdict

The image purportedly of an earthworm under a microscope actually shows a deep ocean worm. The photo has been published multiple times by reputable sources that correctly identify it as a scale worm that lives deep near ocean vents. It bears little resemblance to an earthworm when both are viewed with an electron microscope.

Mostly False – The claim is mostly inaccurate but includes minor elements of truth.

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