Live giant shipworm found in Philippines

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Marvin Altamia

Extremely rare live specimens of a giant shipworm have been found for the first time in southern Philippine waters, with scientists hailing the soft black creature as a remarkable species. However while its toxic fumes might knock most of us out, there is a creature that thrives on this toxic gas - the giant shipworm, a mysterious mud-dwelling creature that has eluded scientists till now.

While at the lagoon, the study authors were able to locate a live shipworm, coax it into a PVC pipe (along with some seawater) and transport it to a laboratory for analysis.

The animal creates its own hard tube shell, made of calcium carbonate, by secreting a substance.

In one sense, Kuphus polythalamia has been known for centuries, because the characteristic long empty shells it leaves behind have often been collected by fisherfolk and travellers.

"Being present for the first encounter of an animal like this is the closest I will ever get to being a 19th century naturalist", added lead co-author Prof.

Daniel Distel, a researcher from Northeastern University and some of his colleagues managed to get their hands on a handful of giant shipworm during a trip they took to the Philippines on April 17 of previous year. Despite this, scientists were puzzled about the giant shipworm, which takes its name from eating from the side of wooden boats. Shipworms are so named due to their length and diet of rotten wood - but as we will learn, that is just one of the misconceptions that's been cleared up by the new discovery.

Even though the creature looks like a giant worm, it's actually related to clams.

Kuphus themselves do not eat, or if they do, they eat very little.

Similarly, the researchers believe that the giant shipworm evolved from wood-eating ancestors that used wood as a "stepping stone" between habitats.

Thrilled by the awesome discovery, Haygood attests to the "mythical status" of the giant shipworm - the "unicorn" of the mollusk world.

Instead, Kuphus Polythalamia relies on bacteria that live in its gills, which digest hydrogen sulphide - a gas that smells of rotten eggs - from the mud and emit traces of carbon. This process is similar to the way plants use the sun's energy to convert carbon dioxide in the air into simple carbon compounds during photosynthesis.

All other types of shipworm are comparatively small, and live exclusively in rotting wood.

"There is not much to limit their growth, and they have a pretty unlimited source of energy from diffusing sulfide".

"That color of the animal is sort of shocking", Distel said.

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