Shipworms and their bizarre wood-eating lifestyle loomed large in the fears of sailors for centuries, as they can send a vessel to the bottom with little more than concerted munching. Even today they can bring structures with wood pilings to their knees or under them. However, among other things, they are also intriguing as potential sources for new antibiotics, which led a team of researchers last year to a river mouth in the Philippines where they pulled up a piece of wood that turned out to contain a new species of shipworm, which they named Tamilokus mabinia.
The discovery occurred during a feverish episode of wading through mangroves and scuba diving in the coastal waters looking for wood that contained shipworm burrows. The team brought their finds to the parking lot of a beachgoer’s hotel, where, wearing headlamps and wielding axes, they extracted the worms and brought them up to their hotel-rooms-cum-biology labs.
Reuben Shipway of Northeastern University is one of the study’s co-authors. Working quickly allowed the team, known as the Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Collaborative Biodiversity Group, to identify, photograph, and begin the process of sequencing the DNA of the animals and their bacterial symbionts right away. He knew right away that he was looking at something new when one of the tiny captured shipworms from its burrow was extracted. “They were pink and pinstriped” he said. Back on the other side of the world in a lab in Boston, the researchers confirmed that the pink-striped shipworm, which can range in size from about 2.5 to 6 inches long, was not only a new species but a representative of a new genus. They explored its insides using a type of CT scanning and learned that the organs are arranged in an unusual pattern. Its heart and kidneys have swapped places and one portion of the digestive system is extremely long.
Studying the bacteria in these shipworms could help reveal details of how this species lives, as well as provide new leads for substances that are useful to people, like digestive enzymes that could help make biofuels. It’s all a part of these creatures’ transition in some humans’ eyes from dangerous pest to fascinating obsession.