Science Fiction Horror Wriggles Into Reality With Discovery Of Giant Shipworm

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138076_web

For the first time, a team of worldwide scientists has been able to capture the live specimens of the elusive shipworm in the Philippines.

After seeing a YouTube video of a Philippine television story, a team of worldwide researchers travelled to a marine bay in Mindanao, Philippines, where they pulled the worms planted like carrots from three-metre-deep mud laden with rotting wood. To add on to the list of intriguing creatures, scientists have just conducted a novel study on a rare marine life, called Kuphus polythalamia, which reveals fascinating facts about the biology of this giant shipworm.

The giant shipworm spends its life encased in a hard shell, submerged head-down in mud, which it feeds on. The bacteria breaks down the mud's hydrogen sulfide and produces organic carbon that "feeds" their host creature.

"This particular species fall square in the middle of the family, so we know it had to have a wood-eating ancestor", Haygood said.

In one sense, Kuphus polythalamia has been known for centuries, because the characteristic long empty shells it leaves behind have often been collected by fisherfolk and travellers. The shells can bring as much as $200 in Asian markets, Wired reported.

The species was described Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The animal has a mythical status-it's like a unicorn", says Margo Haygood, a medicinal chemist from the University of Utah.

People have known about the existence of the creature for centuries.

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Upon studying the animal, researchers were intrigued to discover the shipworm's incredible size may be due to its peculiar feeding habits.

The giant shipworm can grow to over a metre in length.

Instead of living in a piece of wood that they consume, the enormous worms bury themselves in marine mud, and they survive through the activity of special bacteria that live in their gills.

"To me, [finding the giant shipworm] is nearly like finding a dinosaur - something that was pretty much only known by fossils", Dan Distel, research professor at Northeastern University, told the Guardian. The organic-rich mud around its habitat emits hydrogen sulfide, a gas derived from sulfur, which has a distinct rotten egg odor.

The team will continue to research the fascinating creature and the transition between the normal shipworm and the giant species. This process is similar to the way plants use the sun's energy to convert carbon dioxide in the air into simple carbon compounds during photosynthesis.

"We are amazed. This is the first time we saw a shipworm as large as this".

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