Gigantic Shipworm Discovered In Philippines

First Posted: Apr 19, 2017 04:20 AM EDT

Scientists recently found live specimens of the rare giant shipworm for the first time in the Philippines. The massive creature is said to reach up to 5 feet in length and up to 2.3 inches in diameter, making it a monstrous but fascinating find.

According to BBC News, the giant shipworm spends its entire life encased in a hard shell while submerged head down in the mud that it feeds on. It is not a recent discovery. In fact, the existence of these worms was known for years, but no live specimen has ever been studied until now.

The giant shipworm, despite the connotation of its name, is not actually a worm but a bivalve. This means that it is in the same group as clams and mussels. However, it is said to be the longest living bivalve known to man.

Strange shells belonging to the shipworms have been found for centuries. Daniel Distel, chief author of the team that studied the species, noted that they are sturdy and that they last for long periods. However, scientists never knew where to find them until they came across one by chance while working with Filipino scientists.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, described the live giant shipworm for the first time. They found that its symbiotic relationship with bacteria provided clues regarding its evolution, specifically its strange way of eating. In examining the giant shipworms, Dr. Distel had to crack open its shell to slide it out and do an improvised dissection.

They found that despite the worm's massive size, it has a small digestive system. Its gills were speckled with a yellow substance that is presumed to be sulfur. This suggests that the worms lived off hydrogen sulfide -- a toxic chemical -- not with wood pulp, as is the diet of other shipworm species.

As for now, Dr. Distel's team is still studying the shipworm to try to understand the mysterious species. "Whenever you find something so weird and so unusual, there's often going to be unexpected discoveries that come from it," Distel said.

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