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Marine Invertebrate of the Month
Issue: January 2009

Sabellastarte fallax

QUATREFAGES 1866

0109 INVERT

Bob Goemans

Common Names: Feather duster, feather duster worm, sabellid worm

Phylum: Annelida

Class: Polychaeta

Order: Sabellida

Family: Sabellidae

Range: Tropical Indo-Pacific Ocean

Natural Environment: This sabellid worm inhabits suspension-rich lagoons and bay or backwater areas that receive gentle water movement. With its parchment-like tube, it embeds itself in shady, sandy areas or attaches itself to sand/rubble.

Captive Care:

Sabellid worms, commonly called feather dusters, construct a leathery tube up to 10 inches (25 cm) long, from which they extend a single crown of multicolored feather-like filaments of about 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) in diameter. 

There are three species in this family that make it into the trade, and this is the least frequently seen. It is also the smallest, having a crown of feathers about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) in diameter. 

To properly identify this specimen, it was necessary to first identify the alga (not seen in this photo) that was attached to the rock containing its tube. The alga was Cladocephalus scoparius, which only grows in the Indo-Pacific—if it had been C. luteofuscus, the feather duster would have been a species from the Caribbean.

All feather dusters are suspension feeders and should be placed near (or at) the bottom of the aquarium, where their food—suspended particulate matter—is most abundant. Substrate placement is also optimal because they construct their tubes using sand, detritus, and other bits of sediment.

Their slime-coated filaments/tentacles (the “feathers”) are used for respiration and food particle collection. Once collected, food particles are drawn toward the mouth area at the center of the tentacle ring; tiny, beating hair-like cilia on their feathers generate currents that draw foods into the feather-like head of this animal. Frequent feedings, at least every other day, with fresh or preserved zooplankton and phytoplankton additives are a must for long-term survival. Keep in mind that dispensing the feeding solution above the animal may cause the animal to retract, with most of the solution going to waste.

Feather dusters may lose their crown for many reasons, which include poor water quality, being disturbed too often, and lack of sufficient nutrition. This does not mean they are dead, as some will grow their feathers back in a month or two. If the head/crown of feathers returns and is smaller, this is an indication that the food supply is inadequate. If this happens again, the worm will probably die. Always wait a couple of months, and if nothing reappears, feel the tube with your fingers for the worm body inside. If there is some movement inside the tube, put it back and be patient for another month. It is best to avoid the problem by feeding adequately.

When it comes to keeping any of these ornamental worms, predators like triggerfishes, wrasses, angelfishes, most shrimp, and the arrow crab will not make suitable tankmates.

Water Requirements: Calcium 380 to 430 ppm, alkalinity 2.5 meq/l, pH 8.1 to 8.2, specific gravity 1.024 to 1.026, and a temperature range of 72° to 83°F (22° to 28°C).

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