With one last forceful yank on the nylon rope, biologist Toshi Furota hoists the copper-colored bucket atop the water. Heavy with muddy liquid, the bucket lists and sways above the Columbia River until Bob Emmett, also a biologist, kneels at the stern of the boat, grabs the device and guides it aboard with one swift motion.

The bucket’s bottom is equipped with mandible-like claws, which close together when they reach the river’s floor and scoop up whatever lies down there. When the bucket’s claws are released on the boat, its remnants spill out into a shallow rectangular box containing a mesh sieve.

It looks like a gold-panning operation, but researchers Furota and Emmett are on the lookout for something small and squiggly – critters that can’t squirm their way through the sieve. They’re on the hunt for worms, but these are not run-of-the-mill night crawlers. These worms are known as Polychaeta and they carry with them a genetic mystery: Where did they come from and how did they get here?

Near Pier 39 in Astoria, the researchers have their best luck plucking worms from the bottom of the river. Buckets retrieved from the river’s bottom contain a number of the worms, burrowed into the mud.

“This is a very good site,” Furota says, chuckling as he sprays the mud out of the sieve in search of more worms.

Furota is a professor at Toho University’s Department of Environmental Sciences in Japan specializing in marine biology.

Joined by colleague Hiro Tosuji, a geneticist and associate professor at Kagoshima University’s graduate school of science and engineering, Furota embarked on a week-long journey up and down the Oregon Coast last week in search of the worms.

They will take the worms back to Japan, where Tosuji will conduct a series of genetic tests to determine whether the collected worms are native to the Oregon Coast, members of an introduced species that likely made their way to the estuary by hitching rides on the ballast of international shipping vessels or a combination of the two.

The introduced worms could pose problems for the estuary, if they end up having a negative impact on the food chain, Furota says. And the only way to tell the difference between worms that are native and those that have been introduced from abroad is to conduct a series of genetic tests.

“This is basic problem,” Furota says, explaining the potential harm of non-native organisms introduced to a new habitat. “The community structure of animals will be greatly changed – particularly for biodiversity.”

An environment’s native species adapt over the course of thousands of years. So when a new organism is introduced, the natural order of things changes.

That’s particularly important in the case of the food chain, Emmett says. Fish feed off marine worms, and marine worms feed on other sea life.

He says the worms likely do not pose a threat to the natural order of things in the Columbia River estuary. But finding out exactly where the introduced species come from could unlock mysteries concerning where and how non-native organisms make their way to the Oregon Coast.

Being able to pinpoint whether the marine worms came from China, Japan or Korea will provide a snapshot of how introduced species are transported via shipping lanes.

“It lets you know whether you should be worried about those ships,” Emmett says.

More could be done to learn about the impacts of non-native species on the Oregon Coast, Emmett says. NOAA researchers last conducted baseline surveys of Oregon’s coastal estuaries in the late 1970s.

“We have thought about doing them again, to see whether things have changed,” Emmett says.

The topic of invasive species is of particular interest now, as items from last year’s Japanese tsunami continue to wash up onto Oregon’s beaches. Some of the detritus – including a 165-ton dock that washed ashore near Newport – have carried invasive species from Asia.

It’s unclear what effect the introduced species will have on Oregon’s coastal habitat, as work is underway by a newly formed state taskforce to contain the spread of the non-native critters. The likelihood of the organisms wreaking havoc on the Columbia River estuary is slight, Emmett says, because most of the stowaway organisms probably can’t survive in waters with low salinity.

But with research comes surprises. During the re-searchers’ expedition through the Columbia River estuary Friday, they had a surprise of their own.

Crisscrossing the Columbia River from Youngs Bay to points well past Tongue Point, the research team moved from areas of high salinity, where the worms thrive, deeper into the river, where freshwater presents a less friendly environment for the creatures.

Venturing farther and farther away from the type of saltwater environment in which the sea worms typically live, the researchers continued to find them – nearly 10 in all.

“Who would have thought?” Emmett says. “I would have thought we’d have zero here.”

He doesn’t know what that finding means for the worms or the river, though he has his theories, and he hopes Furota and Tosuji’s research sheds some light onto it.

Emmett says it’s important to continue studying new species in the estuary – big, small or squirmy.

“Anytime you have a new species introduced, it changes the ecosystem,” Emmett says. “It becomes more difficult to eradicate.”

  

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