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Scientists discover massive sulfur-eating Shipworm in the Philippines

Scientists have discovered a hellish, sulfur-eating, worm-like relative of clams living in a Philippines bay, a new study reports. Although the giant shipworm was first categorized as a species more than 200 years ago, no living specimen had been examined by scientists and almost nothing had been known about it. That changed when Daniel Distel, a researcher at Northeastern University, and colleagues got their hands on a handful of the creatures during a research trip to the Philippines. Their analysis, in a study published April 17 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that these creatures are quite bizarre.

Known as the giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia) even though they aren’t worms, they’ve never before been described in the scientific literature. But scientists knew that they had to exist, because of the massive, elephant tusk-like shells that stick around even when their horrifying denizens are gone. The shells were first described in the 1700s, and continue to be sold to collectors, but scientists were previously unable to find ones that still contained living shipworms to study.

Relatives of the giant shipworm are known to bore into soggy, submerged wood — digesting the wood particles they churn up with the help of symbiotic bacteria that live in their gills. The giant shipworm, though, is less picky — shacking up in muddy seafloor sediments or rotting wood. So clearly, wood isn’t its only — or even its main — food source.

Watch: Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho: Giant 'tamilok' in Kalamansig, Sultan Kudarat

Hidden in the depths of Kalamansig, Sultan Kudarat is a unique sea creature. No one knows what they really are but residents consider it as a delicacy. It is also called “tamilok“, as it resembles the tubeworms found in mangroves. But this kind seems bigger and longer than the ordinary tubeworm. Even experts from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources are baffled with this discovery.

Haywood and her colleagues suspected the giant shipworms might instead be consuming hydrogen sulfide released by decaying vegetation or rotting animal carcasses at the bottom of the bay. But hydrogen sulfide, which gives swamp gas its eau de rotten eggs, isn’t all that nutritious.

This is what a giant shipworm (Kuphus polythalamia) looks like after being removed from its shell. Marvin Altamia

The worms would need symbiotic bacteria to digest down the inorganic compound and release more nutritious carbon for them to eat. Fortunately for the worms, scientists used electron microscopes to discover  microbes that could do just that, living in the giant shipworms’ gills.

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