First Living Giant Shipworm Discovered In Philippines

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Scientists have found live specimens of the rare giant shipworm (kuphus polythalamia) for the first time despite knowing of its existence for more than 200 years. They discovered the worm-like creature in the Philipines.

Lead investigator Daniel Distel, a research professor and director of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center at Northeastern University, said they never had an opportunity to access to the animal living inside the shell.

Everything we have known so far about this mud-dwelling, sulfur-fueled calm was thanks to the fossils.

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The animal was first documented in the 18th century, although scientists have never been sure about its preferred habitation. Shipwarm is a bivalve – a kind of aquatic mollusk enclosed in its shell. The animal, which grows up to about 90 centimeters (roughly 3 feet) in length, lives upside down in its shell.

It lives in a pretty stinky place. The organic-rich mud around its habitat emits hydrogen sulfide, a gas derived from sulfur, which has a distinct rotten egg odor. This environment may be noxious for us, but it is a feast for the giant shipworm.

It spends the majority of its life inside a hard shell made of calcium carbonate, which it creates by secreting a special substance. It then submerges itself head-down in the mud, where it feeds on marine sediment.

An infographic of shipworm. Image Credit: University of Utah

The first living example of creature scientifically known as Kuphus polythamia was found by a team of scientists in a marine bay on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Interestingly, before discovery researchers spotted the distinctive long shells in a YouTube video of a local news report. Following this lead, the scientists set up an expedition and found live specimens of shipworm.

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The appearance of the shipworm when it slid out of the tube came as a surprise to the researchers. Most bivalves are grayish, tan, pink, brown, light beige colors. However, this bivalve is black, more muscular than expected and much beefier.

Also, they noticed some other differences. While other shipworms contain bacteria in their guts that allow them to break down the stiff material plant cell walls are made of, this one contains unique bacteria which allows it to feast on hydrogen sulfide.

Finding a living shipworm is like finding a dinosaur, claims Daniel Distel. The researchers hope that this discovery will provide them a much better understanding of this strange, alien-like creature.

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