CLOSE
Original image
Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

This Rare Shipworm Is Not Safe for Work

Original image
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.

Original image
arrow
science
These Deep-Sea Worms Could Live More Than a Thousand Years

Plunge below the sparkling surface of the Gulf of Mexico, head down into the depths, and there you'll find the ancient ones, growing in clusters of drab tubes like piles of construction equipment. Scientists writing in the journal The Science of Nature report that some of these worms could be more than 1000 years old.

When it comes to marine organisms, the deeper you go, the slower and older life gets. Biologists have found an octopus that guarded her eggs for four and a half years. They've seen clams born during the Ming dynasty and sharks older than the United States. They've seen communities of coral that have been around for millennia.

Previous studies have shown that some species of tube worm can live to be 250 years old. To find out if the same was true for other species—in this case, the Gulf of Mexico's Escarpia laminata—researchers spent years watching them grow. They used a long-lasting dye called Acid Blue to mark six clusters of worms, then let them to go about their wormy business. A year later, they collected all 356 blue-stained tubes and brought them back to the lab to measure their growth.

By calculating the speed of the worms' growth and comparing it to the size of the largest individuals, the scientists could devise a pretty good estimate of the oldest worms' age.

And boy, are they old. The researchers' worm-growth simulation suggested that the most ancient individuals could be more than 9000 years old. This seems incredible, even for tough old tube worms, so the scientists calculated a more conservative maximum age: a mere 1000 years.

A millennium-long lifespan is an extreme and not the average, the paper authors note. "There may indeed be large E. laminata over 1000 years old in nature, but given our research, we are more confident reporting a life span of at least 250 to 300 years," lead author Alanna Durkin of Temple University told New Scientist.

Still, Durkin says, "E. laminata is pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible for longevity."

She's excited by the prospect of finding older creatures yet.

"It's possible that new record-breaking life spans will be discovered in the deep sea,” she says, “since we are finding new species and new habitats almost every time we send down a submersible.”

 

[h/t New Scientist]

Original image
iStock
arrow
Animals
Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
Original image
iStock

Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios