Scientists said on Monday that they've discovered the first living specimen of a giant shipworm in a Philippine bay. The hard shell also covers its head, but the worm can re-absorb the shell when it needs to grow and burrow deeper into the mud.
"We suspected the giant shipworm was radically different from other wood-eating shipworms", says Haygood.
The team led by Northeastern University's Daniel Distel were led to their prized shipworm by foodies in the Philippines, where the shells of the creatures were often sold to collectors at high prices.
Haygood told Popular Science that the team discovered a population of the shipworms, and sent five of them to a laboratory, where they opened the giant shipworm's hard, calcified tube.
A United States science journal has published details of a rare, live giant shipworm that has been discovered in the Philippines.
The enigmatic shipworm has been known to exist for up to 200 years thanks to fossil evidence, but no living specimen has been caught and examined - until now.
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Having been the first researchers to carefully break the shipworm out of its shell, they quickly discovered it was unlike any wood-eating shipworm ever discovered.
Since the animal had never been studied rigorously, little was known about its life history, habitat, or biology. "Finding the animal confirmed that".
The bizarre-looking animal, encased in a tusk-like shell, may be the stuff of nightmares for many, but its discovery offers scientists a unique opportunity to unravel the secrets of the rare specimen.
Researchers believe that the giant shipworm's symbiotic relationship with bacteria provides evidence of how the mollusk evolved its unusual way of feeding itself. Although the researchers explained that this is not uncommon for shipworms, in most cases, these microbes help the mollusks digest wood. The organic-rich mud around its habitat emits hydrogen sulfide, a gas derived from sulphur, which has a distinct rotten egg odour. In the case of the giant shipworm, the bacteria require no organic carbon from the host, but instead provide it with the carbon they produce.
The process is photosynthesis in plants, where they take carbon dioxide from the air, use the carbon to grow and expel oxygen as a by-product. That this has been a very long-term symbiosis is evidenced by the fact that numerous shipworm's internal digestive organs have atrophied.
"We are amazed. This is the first time we saw a shipworm as large as this".