Being dubbed by the French team as a “hell-clam,” it is the first living specimen of its kind to be discovered and examined by scientists. A joint team of American, French, and Philippine scientists have discovered a hellish, sulfur-eating, and worm-like relative of the clam living in a Philippine bay, particularly in Mindanao. The scientists who found them reported that the giant shipworm is more than five feet long and two inches wide. These strange creatures are the longest members in the family of shellfish that exist today, and they resemble something out of a sci-fi film as a massive, ink-black, alien worm or snake.
This giant shipworm is actually part of the family of Kuphus polythalamia, although technically they are not really worms. They have never been described in any scientific literature up until now. However, scientists have long suspected of their existence because of the long and massive elephant tusk-like shells that they leave behind when the horrifying denizens are gone. The shells were first described as far back as the 1700’s in old Spanish colonial records when the Philippines was the colonial property of Spain. The shells were often sold to collectors and for centuries scientists could not find ones with living shipworms to study.
By pure accident, Margo Haygood, a medicinal chemistry professor at the University of Utah, and her colleagues only knew where to look for them because they saw a cluster of the shells that had been caught on camera. The calcified tusks were spotted in a BBC documentary film, poking out of the muddy seafloor in a shallow Philippine bay in Sultan Kudarat on Mindanao that had once been used to store logs. Researchers retrieved five specimens from the area, and published their findings on Tuesday in the journal PNAS.
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The creatures were hard to study and were always mysterious even when their shell is removed. The scientists had to slowly chip away the giant shipworms out of their shells before dissecting them. It was stumping to answer just how the shipworms can grow so big, why the creature lives in its shell upside down since the cap of its shell seals over its mouth, and had very little traces of fecal matter in their digestive systems? And what were these worms eating?
The original small shipworms are known to burrow into soggy and submerged wood, digesting the wood particles they churn out with the help of symbiotic bacteria in their gills. The giant shipworm functions pretty much the same way but shacks up on muddy seafloor sediments or rotting wood so it can consume the hydrogen sulfide from the decaying matter around it. But as smelly as hydrogen sulfide can be like rotten eggs, this is actually used by the shipworm to feed the symbiotic bacteria inside its guts that are like chefs that produce nutritious carbon for the worm to eat. The scientists are using this giant shipworm to prove that not every creature on the planet has been discovered if they can live as near as a populated bay.