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Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

This Rare Shipworm Is Not Safe for Work

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Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Scientists recently found a massive, suggestively shaped shipworm squelching through the mudflats of the Philippines—the first time the creature has been spotted alive. They described the “beefy, muscular” animal in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shipworms are extraordinary creatures. They’re best known for making marine archaeologists' lives harder by riddling sunken ships with holes. As our planet's oceans heat up, so, too, does the rivalry between researchers and shipworms, which are moving fast into now-comfortably warm waters full of Viking ships. It's an "alarming scenario," the leaders of Denmark's Wreck Protect project note on their site.


Michael C. Rygel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Shipworms aren't true worms, but bivalves like mussels and clams. But where a clam’s slimy foot is relatively short, the shipworm’s just keeps going. The majority of shipworm species are “very delicate, translucent, usually white, beige or pink,” lead investigator Daniel Distel of Northeastern University in a statement. “They’re mostly small, a few centimeters long.”

And then there’s Kuphus polythalamia, which is decidedly … not delicate. People have been finding its rigid, tusk-like, 3- to 5-foot-long shells for hundreds of years, so scientists knew the giant shipworm existed. They’d just never seen one alive.

Then a Philippine television channel aired a documentary about a strange lagoon where long, stiff stalks emerged like fence posts from the mud, and local people ate the shipworm as a delicacy. A researcher sent the video to Distel and his colleagues, all of whom got pretty excited.

"For a biologist who is interested in these bivalves, it's like a unicorn," said senior author Margo Haygood of the University of Utah.

Distel, Haygood, and their team went on an expedition to the muddy lagoon, and there they found the shipworms. They rinsed off one specimen, packed it in a PVC pipe, and ferried it carefully back to the lab for closer inspection.

"When I took that thing out of the tube, there was a collective gasp among the whole group," says Distel, "along with quite a number of expletives." The shipworm was “like a baseball bat.”

The creature from the sticky lagoon is more than just an oddity. Unlike other shipworms, it doesn’t seem to eat wood—or anything else, for that matter. It’s not a matter of scarcity; the lagoon where the researchers picked their K. polythalamia was full of rotting wood. But that bounty goes untouched, and the giant shipworm’s digestive organs have withered to nearly nothing. So how does it live?

By making friends with microbes. The shipworm "consumes" hydrogen sulfide gas, a natural byproduct of wood decay, which is then processed into nutrients by the bacteria living within its enormous gills.

If it doesn't feed on the wood itself, why bother with wood at all? The researchers believe K. polythalamia is a descendent of a wood-eating ancestor, but that over time it formed this unique relationship with the bacteria it hosts. "We believe that somewhere along the line a shipworm acquired a sulfur-oxidizing bacteria as a symbiont, and it was able to get energy not just from the wood but also from the inorganic gas hydrogen sulfide coming from the wood as it rotted," Distel said. "Eventually the new symbiosis completely replaced the old symbiosis."

Now there's a way to make nice with the archaeologists.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.

1. THEY’RE SEA CUCUMBERS.

The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”

2. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN.

Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.

3. THEY EAT WITH MUCUS-COVERED TENTACLES.

Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.

4. THEY’RE ACTIVE AT NIGHT.

Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.

5. THE MOVE ON TUBULAR FEET.

The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.

6. SOME FISH HANG OUT IN SEA APPLES' BUTTS.

Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.

7. WHEN THREATENED, SEA APPLES CAN EXPAND.

Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.

8. THEY CAN EXPEL THEIR OWN GUTS.

Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.

9. SEA APPLES LAY TOXIC EGGS.

These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.

10. THEY'RE NOT EASILY CONFUSED WITH THIS TREE SPECIES.

Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.

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