Image: Family Amphinomidae

Family Amphinomidae

Family Amphinomidae (specimen photographed underwater on the Great Barrier Reef).

Roger Steene
© Roger Steene


These often brightly coloured worms are common in shallow water and on coral reefs and can range in size from a few mm to several cm in length. Despite their beauty, these animals are known as ‘fireworms’, because a close encounter with them can result in excruciating pain or worse. Their hollow bristles are loaded with poison produced by glands at the base of each “foot” (or parapodium). While the bristles can easily penetrate even dive gloves, they also break off releasing poison to which some people are highly allergic. These animals are commonly seen cruising over the reef and have few predators. Fireworms are slow moving carnivores using their muscular eversible lower lip for rasping on sedentary animals such as sponges, anemones, hydroids and ascidians.

The taxonomy of this group is still very confused and many of the species have been reported as widespread, but as more detailed molecular and morphological studies are undertaken they are being shown to represent suites of cryptic species many of which are undescribed, each with very discrete restricted distributions.

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