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The Mud Dragons of Calvert Island

Shedding light on these mysterious marine creatures.
December 7, 2015

Spiky headed dragons roam the ocean floor from the poles to the tropics. But these are not winged beasts from the pages of science fiction. These strange creatures are mud dragons, and they are very real.

Roughly the size of a grain of salt, mud dragons are often overlooked, but a team from the Hakai Institute and the University of British Columbia (UBC) hopes to give them the spotlight they deserve.

“Canada has very few reports on these animals. The first step is to know what is there,” says Dr. Maria Herranz, a Hakai post-doctoral scholar and resident mud dragon expert at UBC.

Dr. Maria Herranz shows off the green mud pulled up from the ocean floor where many species of mud dragons were found. Photo courtesy Maria Herranz

Last summer, Herranz and her colleagues went hunting for mud dragons—also known as kinorhynchs (pronounced k-eye-no-rinks)—in the waters around Calvert Island on the Central Coast of British Columbia. During the initial search, Herranz and her team found seven species. Remarkably, six of the seven types may be newly identified species.

“Kinorhynchs are completely understudied. There are around 230 species described, but there are likely more than 1,000 species in the world,” says Herranz.

Mud dragons do not look like their fictional namesakes. They have no limbs. They have retractable, spine-covered heads. To move, they pull themselves along the ocean bottom with their spines by moving their head in and out of their body (their name comes from the words for “to move snout” in Greek).

Mud dragon kinorhynch gif Maria Herranz UBC Hakai
A mud dragon shows off its retractable head spines. These tiny dragons are actually vegetarians, which are thought to mostly graze on diatoms and bacteria. Video by Maria Herranz

As Herranz and her colleagues learn more about this marine creature’s natural history, they hope to be the first to produce a species list of mud dragons for the region.

“Kinorhynchs are the link between the micro and the macro. They recycle nutrients and provide food for bigger animals. But we don’t know how many are out there. We are just scratching the surface,” says Herranz.

A face only a mother mud dragon could love. These images show the retractable spines on the heads of mud dragons that they use to propel themselves through the mud. Scanning electron micrograph by Maria Herranz

This research is part of the Hakai Institute's broader efforts to understand the microbes and meiofauna of the region. More information about these projects can be found on the Coastal Sand Ecosystems and Microbes-to-Macrophytes research pages.

More information about Dr. Maria Herranz's mud dragon research can be found in her poster presented at the 2015 Hakai Research Exchange (download).

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