A ragworm is a type of annelid worm which lives along the Atlantic shoreline in both North America and Europe. The worms can also be found in parts of the Mediterranean, and they are extremely abundant, providing a source of food to many wading birds and larger ocean creatures. Some fishermen are familiar with ragworms, as they are commonly used as bait, and they are available at many fishing supply stores in both fresh and frozen states.
Depending on regional dialects, ragworms may also be known as sandworms or clamworms. Biologists classify a large number of worms in the Nereidae family as ragworms, especially those in the Nereis genus. There are a number of physical differences between the various species of ragworms, but they all share the segmented bodies which are a crucial classifying characteristic for annelid worms. Ragworms also tend to be be slightly flattened, and they are extremely good at burrowing, making J or S shaped holes in the sand for shelter.
Depending on the species, a ragworm may be an active predator, pursuing an assortment of small ocean creatures and sifting through the mud for food, or it may be a scavenger. Some ragworms mix both behaviors, opportunistically taking advantage of whatever food comes their way. Ragworms also line their bodies with stiff bristles which the animals use to navigate in the ocean and mud that they call home.
These worms can live from one to three years, depending on how long it takes them to reach maturity. Once ragworms reach their maturity, they spawn once before dying, typically producing a large number of fertile eggs which will develop into a new generation of ragworms. Like many worms, the ragworm has evolved over millions of years, establishing a system of life and reproduction which seems to be quite effective for these abundant animals.
Bait supply companies may breed ragworms to ensure a constant supply for fishermen who like to use them. Typically, when used as bait, the worms are not fully mature, making them smaller and therefore easier to handle. Ragworms are also used as a source of food in aquaculture, as they can be reasonably nutritious and they are easy to breed.
You may be able to find a ragworm if you happen to live along the Atlantic shoreline. Try digging in the mud around a local estuary, as ragworms often enjoy estuary habitats. In addition to unearthing a ragworm or two, you may find some other interesting marine animals.