Scientists says new species of worm lives in refuge

Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A scientist at the University of Alaska Anchorage says he's discovered a new species of bristleworm.

The discovery could put the brakes on plans to extend the Coastal Trail south of the city along the shoreline.

Biologist Jerry D. Kudenov announced this month that he had made the worm discovery. He said it is a new genus and species of segmented marine bristleworm, or polychaetous annelid, in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

A plan to extend the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail 12 miles or so from Kincaid Park to Potter Marsh has been in the works for about five years but only recently advanced to the point of choosing a route. The trail would be built with federal highway money.

Kudenov said it's possible the refuge is home to other previously unknown organisms. A Coastal Trail extension bordering the refuge would threaten the ecosystem's integrity, he said.

Kudenov reported his findings in a letter to lawyer Geoffrey Parker, who is compiling information for a possible lawsuit to block a shoreline route extension.

Bristleworms are an important link in the food chain, say scientists, eating plankton and becoming dinner for fish and birds. These worms are 3 to 4 inches long, stretchy, cream-colored creatures with bristles lining each side that look like those on a toothbrush.

The new worm species may have been fostered by Upper Cook Inlet's ice-free, isolated habitat, Kudenov said. It lives in brackish water and is a good protein and fat source for the shorebirds that eat it, he said.

''There is no doubt in my mind that this worm is new to science,'' he said in his letter to Parker.

The state's chief trail planner notes disclosure of the worm's presence is a late-breaking development, coming when a draft environmental statement is nearing completion.

The environmental report, expected out as early as next month, proposes a route that mostly follows the coastline.

''We will be taking up the nature of the concern -- that there's a whole lot of resources in the refuge that depend on the ecology,'' said state Department of Transportation project manager Jim Childers. ''I don't see where we necessarily have to address this worm specifically. It hasn't been represented that it's in any dire threat.''

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