Giant Shipworm Discovery

Giant shipworms, which don’t burrow in ships, have been eluding scientists. Scientists have known of it for a long time, but only recently were able to study a live specimen.  Which is funny, because Pilipinos on Palawan Island  have been eating them for quite some time.

“”I’ve been studying shipworms since 1989 and in all that time I had never seen a living specimen of Kuphus polythalamia,” Daniel Distel, a co-author of the new study and the director of Northeastern University’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center told The Sydney Morning Herald. “It was pretty spectacular to lift that tube out of its container for the first time.””
The scientists ‘discovered’ how to obtain the elusive live specimens from a television show in the Philippines, where these shipworms are eaten as aphrodasiacs.

Here’s the video. It’s called tamilok in the Philippines, and there are different kinds- most don’t have shells and do burrow in wood (shipworms). The giant tamilok, or Kuphus polythalamia, has a shell which can be 5 feet long. It hides in the mud, and doesn’t eat wood.

Here’s a video of scientists pulling out the giant, tusk-like shell from the canister used for transporting it. They cut open the shell and shake out the worm. I think it’s cool, fascinating, and intriguing – the worm in the shell is glossy black and huge. But you might feel differently.

There’s a photograph of Pinoys with a giant shipworm pulled from its shell and being prepared for cooking and eating in one of the links above. Yet in spite of that, CBS News in this articleby Mindy Weisberge, breathlessly speaks of it being seen alive for the ‘first time’ by the late to the party scientists:
“An enormous, worm-like mollusk called a shipworm that inhabits a shell resembling an elephant’s tusk was recently seen for the first time ever.

The animal’s long, tubular shells — which measure 3 to 5 feet in length — were discovered centuries ago, but no one had ever glimpsed the creature that made the shells.”

This part is interesting:
Instead of living in a piece of wood that they consume, the enormous worms bury themselves in marine mud, and they survive through the activity of special bacteria that live in their gills. As the worms filter the water — which is chock-full of rotting wood — the bacteria process hydrogen sulfide produced by the decaying wood and plant material, using it as the fuel for a chemical reaction that results in nourishing organic carbon, the scientists wrote in the study.

Most shipworms measure just a few inches in length, because they can’t grow larger than the piece of wood they inhabit — they can’t move to a new piece of wood if they outgrow the first, so if they grow too big, they would starve to death, Distel told Live Science.

But K. polythalamia, which lives in mud, has no such restrictions, he said.

“There is not much to limit their growth, and they have a pretty unlimited source of energy from diffusing sulfide. It is also possible that their sulfur symbiosis provides them with plenty of nutrients and energy, allowing them to grow faster and larger than their relatives,” Distel said.

It may have taken several centuries to track down these unusual shipworms, but now scientists can finally begin to unravel the mysteries of their unusual biology, life cycle, and their symbiotic relationship with the still-undescribed bacteria that live in their gills and make their food.”


There’s more about them here, along with an excellent diagram.

And this article, minus the error on it not being seen ever until now, also has more detail than others if you want to put together a chapter of biology study of these bizarre members of the mollusca family.


How it lives:

Hydrogen sulfide is not a gas that is usually described as life sustaining. Even at low concentrations it smells like rotten egg and exposure to high levels can cause all kinds of health problems, such as nausea, loss of smell and even death in extreme situations. However while its toxic fumes might knock most of us out, there is a creature that thrives on this toxic gas – the giant shipworm, a mysterious mud-dwelling creature that has eluded scientists till now.

Found in a lagoon laden with rotting wood in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia) has been playing a game of catch-me-if-you-can with scientists since the 18th century. While its empty shells, which can measure up to five-foot long, are fairly common, the creature itself – and a live specimen at that – is not, says lead investigator Daniel Distel, a research professor and director of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center at Northeastern University.”

More on eating Giant Tamilok.

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  1. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted April 20, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    And yet we are supposed to swallow everything these “all-knowing” scientists say about the origin of the earth, global warming and such.

    • Headmistress
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      I know- and it’s not even like this particular island where they serve it at restaurants is extremely obscure. It’s a tourist destination. I posted this story to my personal fb and a local friend of mine who is, honestly, a mover and a shaker in Davao and a professional in a science field, told me she’s eaten it before, but she hadn’t known it was some kind of holy grail to marine biologists.

      This is something that Jonathan Wells talks about in his icons of evolution book- he says one big problem in the science community at large is insularity- they just don’t know that much about what is going on outside of their own disciplines.

  2. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted April 20, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    And wow, that was kind of icky and quite fascinating at the same time. I’m quite sure I would not eat any. How neat the way that they can eat something that’s normally toxic!

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