Worms of different sizes extend burrows through muddy sediments by fracture, applying dorso-ventral forces that are amplified at the crack tip. Smaller worms displace sediments less than larger worms, and therefore are limited in how much force they can apply to burrow walls. We hypothesized that small worms would exhibit a transition in burrowing mechanics, specifically a lower limit in body size for the ability to burrow by fracture, corresponding with an ontogenetic transition in muscle morphology. Kinematics of burrowing in a mud analog, external morphology and muscle arrangement were examined in juveniles and adults of the small polychaete, Capitella sp. We found that it moves by peristalsis, and no obvious differences were observed among worms of different sizes; even very small juveniles were able to burrow through a clear mud analog by fracture. Interestingly, we found that in addition to longitudinal and circular muscles needed for peristaltic movements, left- and right-handed helical muscles wrap around the thorax of worms of all sizes. We suggest that in small worms helical muscles may function to supplement forces generated by longitudinal muscles and to maintain hydrostatic pressure, enabling higher forces to be exerted on the crack wall. Further research is needed, however, to determine whether surficial sediments inhabited by small worms fail by fracture or plastically deform under forces of the magnitudes applied by Capitella sp.

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