The "Velvet Worm" is a fascinating but little known creature which lives in tropical climates, usually in rainforests. Here are some quick facts you may not know about this exotic creature.
First of all, the velvet worm does not belong to the worm family! It's actually a peripatus or living fossil, which resembles a species that inhabited our planet some 570 million years ago. The skin of the velvet worm is covered with thousands of tiny bristles or papillae, with a soft texture that feels like velvet, which is where its name comes from.
Peripatus lives in many countries in the southern hemisphere, particularly in Africa, Australasia and South America where it can be found in jungle habitats. It was first discovered by an amateur naturalist on the island of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean. More recently they have been found under rocks close to the Tasman Glacier.
The worm is sometimes mistaken for a caterpillar, because of its fourteen or more pairs of legs. Some species have as many as 40 pairs. Most species are less than 4cm long but some are as long as 10 cms. A new species called Peripatus solorzanoi has been discovered in Costa Rica which measures a massive 22 cms.
The worm is a meat eater or carnivore, which hunts its prey at night. It feeds on small insects and small crustaceans, which it captures by ejecting a sticky fluid substance from antennae on its head. The fluid quickly becomes hard so that the prey cannot move to escape. The worm then makes a hole in the shell of the prey using its jaws, squirts in some digestive enzymes and extracts the innards before digesting them. Some worms can spit up to 50 centimetres, when they feel under threat from a predator.
The worm has a breathing tube without a valve, so this remains open all the time. As a result the worm can lose moisture very quickly and become easily dehydrated in warm climates. It can also drown in puddles or surface water. The Velvet Worm likes to live in damp conditions, under rotting logs, leaf mould or in the undergrowth of a forest.
Some species lay eggs, whilst others give birth to live offspring. A female may only mate once during her adult life and may have as many as sixteen foetuses at different stages of development in her womb. It has been known for the mother worm to eat her babies.
The Peripatus has long been of special interest to scientists studying evolutionary biology because the Velvet Worm was one of the first terrestrial species with the ability to walk.