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Dancing to the rhythms of geological time: The biorhythm capabilities of Polychaeta in a geological context

Lookup NU author(s): Emeritus Professor Peter Olive, Dr Kim Last, Elizabeth Rosato


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Errant polychaete worms in the Orders Eunicida (family Eunicidae) and Phyllodocida (families Nereidae and Polynoidae) exhibit a highly developed biorhythmic capability. The Pacific palolo worms are well known for a precisely timed annual breeding event in which mass spawning occurs at a particular time of day, on one day per year, that day having a fixed relationship to the lunar period. Nereidae and Polynoidae exhibit photoperiodic responses that determine the breeding season by regulation of oocyte growth. Nereis virens shows short-term cycles of foraging activity; automated recording of these patterns has revealed four distinct behaviour rhythm phenotypes: circadian, tidal, lunidian and arrhythmic, the last phenotype being expressed during the photoperiod induced growth diapause. The Eunicids and Phyllodocids are represented in the fossil record by scolecodonts, their fossilised jaws. There was a major radiation of these polychaetes during the Ordovician and the earliest suggested polychaete fossils are from the Cambrian. The simultaneous expression of tidal and circadian rhythmicity is characteristic of intertidal animals and it is likely that this complex behavioural repertoire was found in the ancestors of modern terrestrial forms, such as tetrapods and arthropods, prior to their emergence onto land during the Carboniferous and Silurian periods at least 400 Ma. The period of the earth's rotation, and hence day length and tidal period, has long been known to be increasing, and additionally the moon to be retreating from the earth, due to the phenomenon of tidal friction caused by the gravitational interactions between the moon and the earth. These changes are significant over a geological time scale. Consequently, the length of day was substantially less (and the number of days in a year more) than at present in the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. Recent theoretical analysis of the period of the earth's rotation suggests that the day length prior to a critical period (tcrit) around 1800 Ma may have been stable, with a length of only 4 h. At that time a period of more rapid change in the dynamics of the rotation was initiated. The implications of this theory for the evolution of the biological clock are discussed. © 2005 Balaban.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Olive PJW, Kyriacou CP, Last KS, Kramer C, Bailhache T, Rosato E

Publication type: Conference Proceedings (inc. Abstract)

Publication status: Published

Conference Name: 10th International Congress on Invertebrate Reproduction and Development

Year of Conference: 2005

Pages: 197-206

ISSN: 0792-4259

Publisher: Invertebrate Reproduction and Development, Balaban Publishers