Scientists Find First Live Giant Shipworm After Centuries Of Mystery

Examining the beautiful Kuphus polythalamia. Screenshot of video by Marvin Altamia

Science has a new weird kid on the block: A giant, mud-dwelling, sulphur-fueled, worm-like black clam that looks like it might burst out of your chest.

For the first time ever, scientists have found a live giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia) in the Philippines. The 1.2-meter-long (4 feet) shell casings of these creatures have been documented since the 18th century, however, they’ve managed to avoid capture all these years.

"The shells are fairly common. But we have never had access to the animal living inside," lead researcher Daniel Distel from Northeastern University said in a statement.

The researchers managed to find a few of these individuals alive after watching a documentary on Filipino television that showed a muddy lagoon with these marine invertebrates popping out the top “like carrots”. They headed down to the location and managed to bring one back to the lab where they washed it up, chiseled open its shell, and emptied its worm-like body out onto a tray.

"Being present for the first encounter of an animal like this is the closest I will ever get to being a 19th-century naturalist," said the study's senior author Margo Haygood, a research professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy.

Oddly satisfying: Introducing Kuphus polythalamia. Video by Marvin Altamia

Since this is the first live specimen that’s ever been studied, the researchers are not certain about a lot of the species' behavior and biology. However, they have already picked up on a few of its stranger habits.

Typically, a normal shipworm burrows into underwater trees that have washed into the ocean, or the hulls of ships, digesting the cellulose in the wood with the help of bacteria for its energy. However, this species appears to live only in the sulfur-rich mud of a lagoon laden with rotting wood that stinks of rotting eggs.

Strangest of all, it doesn’t "eat" in the traditional sense. It gets its energy from a strange symbiotic relationship with the bacteria that lives in its gills. The bacteria uses hydrogen sulfide in the mud for energy to produce organic carbon that feeds the shipworm.

"We suspected the giant shipworm was radically different from other wood-eating shipworms," added Haygood. "Finding the animal confirmed that."

The study, by the University of Utah, Northeastern University, University of the Philippines, Sultan Kudarat State University, and Drexel University is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I'm ready for my closeup." Marvin Altamia 

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