The vast majority of the more than 8,000 known species of polychaete worms are marine; some, however, are found in fresh or brackish water. They are abundant from the intertidal zone to depths of over 16,405 ft (5,000 m). The polychaetes, so named because of the numerous setae (chaetae) they bear, range in length from less than 1/8 in. to more than 9 ft (2 mm to 3 m), but most are from 2 to 4 in. (5–10 cm) long. Their colors are often brilliant, and some species are iridescent. The class has usually been divided on the basis of mode of existence into two groups, the errantia and the sedentaria.Errant Polychaetes
Errant polychaetes include actively crawling or swimming forms which may, however, also spend time in burrows or crevices, or under rocks on the seashore. A familiar errant polychaete is the clamworm, Nereis, widely used as bait. Errant polychaetes swim, crawl over the ocean bottom, or tunnel through surface sediments. Many are predators on small invertebrates; some are scavengers. In most the first few body segments bear sensory projections called cirri, while the remaining body segments bear conspicuous leglike appendages called parapodia. The parapodia, along with undulations of the body, propel the worm in crawling and swimming; parapodia are tipped with bundles of setae, usually made of chitin. Most errant polychaetes have well-developed head regions, which bear eyes, sensory tentacles, and a specialized organ, the nuchal organ, thought to detect chemicals. The anterior end of the gut often forms a protrusible structure, the proboscis, sometimes equipped with strong chitinous jaws and used in feeding. The setae of some polychaetes, e.g., the tropical fireworm, are composed of calcium carbonate rather than chitin and are hollow. These brittle setae are easily broken off and contain a toxin that produces a painful reaction in humans. In the scaleworms, a series of overlapping scales form a covering over the animal's upper surface. In the sea mouse these scales are completely covered by long, slender, feltlike setae projecting from the parapodia.
Sedentary polychaetes are usually adapted to living permanently in tubes or burrows; some attach themselves to rocks or piers. Many sedentary polychaetes, like the lugworm, Arenicola, live in burrows in sand or mud. The majority, however, are tube builders. Tubes of different species vary greatly in their composition and structure. They may be composed of sand, shell, or other particles held together with mucus, or made entirely of organic substances secreted by the worm that harden on contact with water. The tubes may be straight, branched, spiraled, or U-shaped. Most are permanently attached to a substrate, and the worm seldom or never ventures outside; however, the tube worm Cistenides moves about the seafloor, dragging along its delicate tube of sand grains. Sedentary polychaetes have greatly modified head regions for specialized feeding habits. Many are adapted for feeding on organic matter deposited on the ocean floor. For example, the lugworms have a simple, thin-walled, jawless proboscis, which is used to draw sand into the gut, where organic matter is removed. Other worms have feeding tentacles that extend from the tube opening and creep along the mud or sand, picking up organic deposits. Still others of the Sedentaria are filter feeders: the beautiful feather-duster worms have a crown of feathery, ciliated tentacles that extend from the tube opening to sweep small planktonic organisms from the water. The tentacles are quickly withdrawn if the animal is startled. The parapodia are reduced in the sedentary polychaetes, and the setae of many tube-dwelling forms are hooked to help the worm hold itself to the wall of its tube.
The structure of the digestive tract of polychaetes is variable, reflecting the diversity of feeding types. Respiration is entirely through the body wall in some polychaetes, and partially so in most. Many species have thin-walled extensions of the body surface, i.e., gills, used for gas exchange; most commonly the gills are extensions of the parapodia. The tentacles of feather-duster worms are used for respiratory exchange as well as for feeding. A polychaete may have a single pair of excretory tubes or a pair in each segment. Sedentary polychaetes have various modifications to insure that wastes will be deposited near the mouth of the tube or burrow, where they are washed away.
Most polychaetes reproduce sexually, and the sexes are separate. Sex cells develop from masses of tissue in the metameres and leave by way of tubules or by rupture of the body wall. In most cases fertilization of the eggs by sperm occurs externally in seawater and results in the formation of free-swimming larvae. Variations include internal fertilization, laying of egg masses that are attached to objects with mucus, and brooding of developing eggs in the worm's body. Some errant polychaetes, including the clamworm, undergo extreme changes in appearance and become active swimmers at the time of year that the sex cells mature; males and females swarm to the surface of the sea to spawn. In some of these species the portion of the body containing the sex cells breaks free and engages in swarming and spawning, leaving the asexual portion behind to regenerate its lost parts. Swarming generally occurs at night and is correlated with particular phases of the moon. Some species perform a kind of nuptial dance, swimming in circles as they spawn. In some species the worms liberate a luminous secretion, which produces circles of light on the ocean surface as they dance. The most famous swarming polychaete is the tropical palolo worm, a name sometimes applied to all swarming polychaetes.
Two groups of polychaetes that are sometimes regarded as separate classes are the Archiannelida and the Myzostomaria. The former group includes a variety of minute marine worms living in surface mud, in tidepools near the high-tide line, and in the interstitial spaces of mud and sand in some subtidal areas. All archiannelids are scavengers. They have a ciliated epidermis and only a few body segments; many resemble the larvae of other polychaetes. The Myzostomaria are a small group of marine worms parasitic on certain echinoderms (crinoids, starfish, and brittlestars). They are disk-shaped and flattened, with a series of reduced parapodia with hooked setae; they often match the color pattern of the host.