For the first time, researchers were able to study a bizarre worm that lives in mangrove swamps. This species of shipworm can grow up to 5 feet long.
Dr. Daniel Distel, chief author of the report, said: ‘The strange shells have been found for centuries, because they are very sturdy and they last a long time.
‘But we’ve never known where to find them.’
It was one of the students of Dr. Distel’s who stumbled upon the slimy find on social media.
Dr Distel said: ‘One of our students came in and said, ‘hey, look at this’, he’d found this really great video on YouTube.
‘We searched the literature and the scientific sources for years, and then we find it on YouTube. It’s the miracle of social media.’
According to the BBC, the slimy creatures have been known about for years, but now they have been found in the Philippines.
The shipworm spends its life encased in a hard shell, submerged head-down in mud, which it feeds on.
A giant shipworm is a bivalve, like a clam or an oyster, and it has its own shell. The shell was usually the only part of the animal ever recovered, because researchers didn’t know where it lived until now: It burrows into the mud in shallow lagoons full of rotting wood.
Dr. Distel said: ‘It was like opening a soft-boiled egg. I just tapped on it very, very lightly with a chisel, made a circle, and the shell came off, just like an egg.
‘It feels a lot like it looks – it’s kind of slimy, but it wasn’t objectionable, it didn’t smell bad.’
Rotting wood is lunch for most shipworms. But the giant shipworm doesn’t even have to eat it. It doesn’t have to eat anything. Instead, it gets energy from symbiotic bacteria that live in its gills.
Hydrogen sulfide from the rich mud in the swamps serves as fuel for the bacteria, and they release organic carbon as waste. It’s more than enough to keep the shipworm alive — it works so well that its own digestive tract has atrophied from disuse.
We don’t usually see animals switch away from actual food all that often. It seems to happen most in extreme environments and with hosts that don’t have to move much. The tubeworms that live near hydrothermal vents rely on bacteria for their food, too.