In Brief
  • Thanks to a serendipitous encounter with a Philippine documentary, researchers were finally able to get a giant shipworm specimen for study.
  • They were able to learn more about how the creature lives and eats.

Where Wonder Meets Weird

We here at Futurism sure are excited for the upcoming release of the next installment in the Alien franchise. But we’re not the only ones. A newly studied creature is making it seem like there’s a viral marketing campaign coming from Mother Nature. An international team of scientists has published the first ever study of this creature, a rare mud-dwelling shipworm, the Kuphus polythalamia, in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The animal lives in baseball bat sized shells embedded in the mud of shallow lagoons. And, even though we have known about the worms for centuries, this is the first time an actual specimen has been examined. “The shells are fairly common,” says lead investigator Daniel Distel, Ph.D., “But we have never had access to the animal living inside.” The researchers got lucky and discovered these creatures thanks to a Philippine documentary that aired on television.

The researchers have been able to learn a lot about these creatures from studying them up close. One of the strangest discoveries about the animal is that they don’t exactly eat. Their muddy habitats produce hydrogen sulfide which the bacteria living in the shipworms’ gills use as energy to produce organic carbon, which the worm then uses as food. They do have a digestive system, but it is very small in comparison to similar species. Scientists believe this shrinking may be due to the organs’ lack of use since the animal has found a different way to get energy.

Credit: University of Utah
Image Credit: University of Utah

Hidden Mysteries

It is amazing to think about how, even with centuries of endless discovery, we continue to find natural surprises around the globe. “We think of this planet of as being well explored, but I think there’s plenty of room left for exploration,” said Margo Haygood, a medicinal chemistry professor at the University of Utah in a video of the shipworm being cut out of its shell. “We should not believe that we know all there is to know about the biology of our planet.”

Last year, we learned that the designs for the creatures in the Alien franchise may not have been too far from reality with the discovery of the practically Giger-ian black dragonfish. Usually, we have to sink to incredible depths to discover odd wildlife like this. Deep sea creatures and cave dwelling animals look strikingly different than what we’re typically used to seeing. Not only that, but in order to survive such extreme conditions, they typically also develop some truly wild traits to survive.

It is exciting to know that, even closer to the surface, our planet can still surprise us with something new and interesting for our intellects to feast upon.