Since the 1700s, certain collectors have sold long, calcium-hardened shells that looked like hollow baseball bats or elephant tusks. Scientists suspected that giant mollusks made these shells, but a live one had never been recovered inside. It wasn’t until three centuries later—when researchers dug up a few inhabited shells from the marine mud of the Philippines—that we got a look at the owners of these ancient collectibles.
We kinda regret it now.
A study in PNAS outlines the creature inside, Kuphus polythalamia, and found that though the animals are colloquially called “giant shipworms,” they are more closely related to clams, as bivalves. The slimy tubes are around a meter and a half long (it is the longest known bivalve) kind of like a baseball bat you’d never want to swing.
The shipworms belong to the family Teredinidae, which bore into submerged wood (like the hull of a ship, hence the name) and use symbiotic bacteria to breakdown the wood’s material into food. K. polythalamia is now the only discovered member of this family that burrows into mud instead of wood, using their symbiotic bacteria to break down chemicals, like the chemicals that make rotten eggs smell bad, hydrogen sulfide, into sustenance. The giant shipworms’ ability to feed in this chemoautotrophic way is what sets it apart. It also slides out of its calciferous shell very grossly, which is notable.
While this newly described burrower may look like a sarlacc, its method of consumption is far less sinister. It burrows deep into the mud, secretes a protective shell over itself, and then sifts that mud over its gills where the symbiotic material break down hydrogen sulfide in the mud. K. polythalamia is less like a Star Wars monster more like a plant and its chlorophyll converting carbon dioxide into sweet life energy.
I want to touch one, what about you?
Images: The University of Utah