Shipworms are a type of wood-boring clam that look more like a worm wearing two shells as a hat than any typical bivalve. Currently, there are 70 recognized species of shipworms, broken into 17 genera. They can be found in every ocean in the world, living in driftwood, mangroves, seagrass roots, and mud. They can sink a wooden vessel just by munching on it. Some species are smaller than your pinky, while the largest is more than 5 feet long.
Reuben Shipway is a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center. He was in the Philippines hunting for shipworms, when he discovered a new species of them. These had uniquely-shaped pallets, and odd pink pinstripes on its siphons.
“No other species has pinstriped siphons,” Shipway says.
In a recent paper, the researchers announced that these shipworms, which they named Tamilokus mabinia, are not only a new species, but they are distinct enough from other shipworms to be designated an entirely new genus.
Shipway helped to discover another new genus of shipworm, announced in November of 2018, which marked the first time a new genus had been described since 1933.
“Reuben is the shipworm whisperer,” laughs Dan Distel, who leads the research team and directs the Ocean Genome Legacy Center.
In addition to the exterior differences, the researchers found that Tamilokus has an unusually large digestive tract, containing an oversized version of a rubbery, rod-shaped structure called a crystalline style.
The work is part of an ongoing collaboration funded by the National Institutes of Health, to study molluscs in the Philippines and the bacteria that live in them. The research is hoped to yield promising options for human medicine. The project has also provided the opportunity for Distel, Shipway, and their colleagues to significantly advance the scientific understanding of shipworms.