There's something strange in the water… a swarm of swirling, squiggling white lines, swimming from the edge of a puddle to the center and back again. They look like bolts of electricity, but they are alive. And they are getting their groove on.
These sentient squiggles are Turbatrix aceti, a species of millimeter-long, worm-like animal known as a nematode. With more than 25,000 species described so far, nematodes are some of the most prolific animals on the planet, Live Science previously reported. Many are parasites. Others, like T. aceti, feed on tiny microbes in pretty much any environment you can think of … including jars of vinegar. Hence, T. aceti's somewhat slimy nickname: the vinegar eel.
A team of scientists recently took an interest in vinegar eels not because of where the creatures live, but how they move; like many birds or fish, these unctuous creatures travel in synchronized swarms. To get a better look at the choreography of vinegar eels in motion, researchers watched colonies of thousands of vinegar eels swimming inside water droplets under a microscope. Their results were published Jan. 10 in the journal Soft Matter.
As you can see in the video of the team's experiments, that choreography is a sight to behold.
After roaming the droplet randomly for the better part of an hour, some nematodes began to cluster at the center, while others swarmed to the water's edge, racing around the rim like cars in a roundabout. Soon, individual nematodes began undulating their bodies — then, others nearby started to undulate in sync.
Before long, the entire swarm was oscillating, moving in sync to a beat only they could perceive. Lead study author Anton Peshkov, a physicist at the University of Rochester in New York, was astounded by the synchronized complexity of their movement.
"This is a combination of two different kinds of synchronization," Peshkov told ScienceNews.org. "Motion and oscillation."
One final surprise remained. As the swarm swam in unison, it pushed against the edge of the droplet, temporarily preventing the droplet from contracting as it slowly evaporated. When the team measured the force exerted by the roiling nematode horde, they found that the worms had the potential to move objects hundreds of times their own weight.
Perhaps this video can serve as a reminder that one should not underestimate the nematodes. One worm in your vinegar bottle might be an inconvenience — but a thousand worms in your bottle is a flash mob in the making. Good luck stopping that party.
Originally published on Live Science.