An international team of researchers has become the first to find a strange animal known as the giant shipworm in the wild, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.
The strange mollusk (Kuphus polythalamia) is surrounded by a long, hard shell and primarily lives at the bottom of murky lagoons. This is the first time scientists have been able to study the unique creature.
Researchers have known about the giant shipworm since the 18th century. However, the only evidence they had of the animal’s existence were its long, tusk-like shell casings. Nobody had ever found a casing with a living creature still inside because researchers were not sure where the shipworms lived.
However, the team in the recent study uncovered evidence of the bivalve’s habitat when they watched a Philippine documentary showing the shells stuck in the mud of a shallow lagoon. This caused researchers to travel to these murky areas, where they managed to collect some living specimens.
“It was a thrill, partly because we had longed to get our hands on one for so long, and partly because the animal is so strange,” study co-author Margo Haygood, a research professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah College, told Gizmodo. “When I looked into the tank and saw the strong jet of water shooting from the siphon of the animal, I was so excited that they were alive and healthy. When we opened the tube I was struck by the dramatic dark color of the body, which is so different from the pale body of normal shipworms.”
Though the animals are related to the more common saltwater shipworm, they differ in several ways. First, they live in mud rather than sunken wood. They also have a thick shell that is much more sturdy than the thin layer normal shipworms use to line their tunnels. In addition, the species has a hard cap that covers their mouth, which prevents them from ingesting food.
The species feeds on the noxious gas hydrogen sulfide that is produced in its environment. The animal does this by taking the substance in through its gills, where bacteria convert it into edible organic carbon. This process is similar to photosynthesis, except that toxic fumes are used for energy in place of sunlight.
Now that the team has access to living specimens, they plan to study the unique creatures in further detail. They hope this will shed more light on the animal’s lifestyle and enable them to get a better look at how its bacteria operate.
“Everything about these creatures is weird and surprising,” said lead author Dan Distel, a research professor with the Marine Science Center at Northeastern University, according to Live Science. “We have only just started to uncover its secrets.”