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The world's first known giant shipworm wriggles into view in major scientific find

The shipworm comes from a “pretty stinky place” and doesn’t eat, despite reaching 5ft in length.

shipworm Source: PNAS

SCIENTISTS HAVE LONG known of their existence, but a rare species of giant shipworm has been discovered and studied for the first time.

The giant, black, mud-dwelling, worm-like creatures wouldn’t look out of place in a science-fiction horror film, and scientists have keenly examined these “unique” animals following a recent find.

The researchers from University of Utah and Northwestern University, among others, took a trip to the Philippines after spotting a local news report about the animals.

There, they found the giant shipworm, that can reach almost 5ft in length.

“One of our students came in and said, ‘hey, look at this’ – he’d found this really great video on YouTube,” said Dr Daniel Distel, the lead author of the group’s findings.

We searched the literature and the scientific sources for years, and then we find it on YouTube.

When they discovered the shipworms – which aren’t actually worms but bivalves, from the same family as mussels and clams – the scientists were taken back.

Senior author Marvin Altamia said: “I was awestruck when I first saw the sheer immensity of this bizarre animal.

We suspected the giant shipworm was radically different from other wood-eating shipworms… Finding the animal confirmed that.

As they are similar to a clam they lived in a shell-like structure and researchers were tentative before opening its shell to examine it further.

Altamia added: “Frankly, I was nervous. If we made a mistake, we could lose the opportunity to discover the secrets of this very rare specimen.”

Once they plucked up the courage to crack it open – “like a soft-boiled egg” according to Distel – scientists learned a great deal more about the mysterious animal.

opening Researchers cracking the shell open Source: PNAS

“It feels a lot like it looks,” said Distel. “It’s kind of slimy, but it wasn’t objectionable.”

They found that this particular kind of shipworm – called Kuphus polythalamia – is unusual in a number of ways.

It lives in what the researchers called a “pretty stinky place”, in mud that emits the foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide.

Also, these shipworms don’t eat, relying on bacteria that live in their shells to make food for them from wood.

This method of consuming food could shed light on an entire ecosystem, according to researchers who said that the process is similar to how plants derive food from sunlight.

Distel said that this will be a main focus of the group’s feature research into the giant shipworm.

Their research was published in the journal PNAS.

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Sean Murray

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