Sulphur-powered giant shipworm unearthed in Philippines

Mandy Carr
April 19, 2017

As they evolved, the species began building new shells to protect its vulnerable body by secreting calcium carbonate.

Scientists have discovered live specimens of rare giant shipworm in the Philippines, despite knowing about the creature for more than 200 years. They look like massive, dark black alien creatures out of a sci-fi movie.

The giant shipworm, described in the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, may be one of the laziest creatures on Earth. The species, Kuphus polythalamia, can measure up to five feet in length and a couple inches around.

However, a new discovery in the Philippines has unearthed a freakish worm-like creature that is not only huge, but consists on a diet of sulphur-eating bacteria.

Kuphus polythalamia is the longest in the family of shellfish.

The shipworm is a not actually a worm at all, but a bivalve - like mussels and clams - and has its own brittle, tusk-like shell. "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.

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This environment may be noxious for you and me, but it is a feast for the giant shipworm, researchers said. So, scientists followed the clues in the video.

While collectors or sellers wouldn't reveal where they find their animals, one of the collaborators happened to catch a short documentary that featured a local trying to eat the rare shipworm in 2010. The marine bay was once used as a log farm. For hundreds of years, the only trace of this enormous alien-looking species that can grow to up to a meter long is the massive empty shells they leave behind.

Since the lagoon where the shipworm was found abounds in sulfide, the symbiotic bacteria were constantly exposed to this element and thus able to continuously feed the peculiar sea creature with a steady supply of food. The team believes that shipworms first ate wood, but they acquired bacteria in millions of years of evolution. The method is similar to the feeding strategy of the species which colonize hydrothermal vents.

Unlike its shipworm cousins, which burrow into rotting wood, this giant shipworm, K. polythalamia lives on hydrogen sulfide, that which gives eggy farts their potent kick. It sifts mud and sediment with its gills. A unique community of microbes break down hydrogen sulfide into carbon, which sustains the giant worm.

The Kuphus, however, does not feed on wood but relies on the mud that surrounds its habitat. It doesn't eat anything else.

Another interesting fact is the creature\u0027ssuper small digestive system. There's also more to learn about the species' lifecycle and behavior. Scientists plan to study its microbiome. The team took a live shipworm out of the lagoon and took it to a laboratory for examination.

Other reports by Guamnewswatch

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