Sci-Tech

Giant shipworm loses its shell and invades our nightmares

Scientists find a living specimen of a 5-foot-long mollusk to dissect for a new study.

While most of us would cringe at finding something that looks like an extra long bizarre black worm squirming in the mud, scientists are thrilled they finally tracked down the elusive giant shipworm -- scientifically named Kuphus polythalamia.

Though it might look like a long worm, the shipworm is actually classified as a bivalve mollusk, like a clam or a mussel. The shipworm -- which measures 5 feet (155 centimeters) long and 2.3 inches (6 centimeters) in diameter -- is encased in a hard shell and lives underwater in the mud.

Scientists were aware of the giant shipworm's existence for years, but no live specimen of the creature was available to study in a lab environment until now.

After being spotted it in a TV program from the Philippines, five live specimens were each shipped inside PVC pipes to scientists, who filmed the unveiling of the shipworms from their hard shells as well as the dissections themselves.

The scientific paper "Discovery of chemoautotrophic symbiosis in the giant shipworm Kuphus polythalamia (Bivalvia: Teredinidae) extends wooden-steps theory" published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, reveals the scientists' unusual findings.

Scientists dissect a giant shipworm for the first time.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

In addition to the mollusk's unusual black coloring on the outside, scientists were also surprised by the shipworms' unusually small internal organs.

They also discovered that the creature's intestines had yellow spots from bacteria that turned hydrogen sulfide into food, which is the first time it has been observed in shipworms.

"I've been studying shipworms since 1989 and in all that time I had never seen a living specimen of Kuphus polythalamia," Daniel Distel, a co-author of the new study and the director of Northeastern University's Ocean Genome Legacy Center told The Sydney Morning Herald. "It was pretty spectacular to lift that tube out of its container for the first time."

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