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Alien-Looking Shipworm Emerges in the Philippines for the First Time After Centuries of Eluding Capture

Apr 18, 2017 06:32 AM EDT
Scientists unearthed the first giant shipworm Kuphus polythalamia ever discovered.
(Photo : Newsy (Courtesy of PNAS)/YouTube Screenshot)

Scientists unearthed the first giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia) ever discovered. For hundreds of years, the only trace of the gigantic alien-looking kuphus that can grow to up to a meter long is the massive empty shells they leave behind. Now, according to a report from Popular Science, scientists have finally caught a live specimen of what they call "the prize, the unicorn" of the shipworm world.

The team, headed by Northeastern University's Daniel Distel, was led to their prized monstrous shipworm by foodies in the Philippines, where the shells of the creatures were often sold to collectors at high prices. While collectors or sellers wouldn't reveal where they find their animals, one of the collaborators happened to catch a short documentary that featured a local trying to eat the rare shipworm in 2010.

After countless of fruitless searches, the way it practically fell onto their laps had the scientists ecstatic.

"[It was] amazing!" Distel told New Scientist. "I've been looking for them for 20 years. My friend and mentor Ruth Turner looked for her whole career."

The television spot led the scientists to embark on two international expeditions in 2010 and 2011 in an attempt to find the giant shipworm. It was during their second attempt that the group finally discovered the live specimen and transported them to the University of the Philippines for analysis.

The giant shipworm, known as the largest bivalve in the world, is unique from other shipworms because it likes to live in mud instead of burrowing into driftwood. Instead of eating, the Kuphus polythalamia gets its nutrients by relying on the symbiotic bacteria in its gills. The bacteria breaks down the mud's hydrogen sulfide and produces organic carbon that "feeds" their host creature.

"Kuphus was thought to be the most primitive shipworm," Distel says. "Instead it turns out to have evolved from wood eating shipworms. Its anatomical simplicity is actually the result of specialisation for a new lifestyle rather than the lack thereof."

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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