April 18 (UPI) -- Scientists have for the first time collected live specimens of the rare giant shipworm. The long, black marine worms were found in the Philippines.
The worm lives most of its life in the mud of the seabed, encased in a hard shell. The species, Kuphus polythalamia, can measure up to five feet in length and a couple inches around. Until now, scientists have only known the giant shipworm by the baseball bat-like shells of calcium carbonate it leaves behind.
The researchers were tipped off to the whereabouts of the elusive species by a Filipino documentary featuring a group of fishermen dedicated to finding, cooking and eating shipworms.
"It's all in Tagalog, so I can't really follow it," Margo Haygood, a research professor in medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, told Popular Science. "But it shows people collecting normal shipworms and eating them, and then this incredible animal sticking up out of the mud, and a whole lot of people cooking and eating those, too."
The fishermen refused to give up their trade secret and lead the researchers to the giant shipworms, but a team led by Northeastern University's Daniel Distel were able to follow the video clues to the treasure.
The scientists collected five giant shipworms from the mud of a lagoon along the coast of Mindanao, an island in southeastern Philippines. The marine bay was once used as a log farm. Many shipworm species feed on rotting wood.
The giant shipworm's feeding method is stranger. The long, black worm sifts mud and sediment through a large gill. A unique community of microbes break down hydrogen sulfide into carbon, which sustains the giant worm. The method is similar to the feeding strategy of the species which colonize hydrothermal vents.
The early findings, detailed in the journal PNAS, are just the beginning, researchers say. Scientists hope the worm's microbiome, which has been cultured in the lab, could reveal unique antimicrobial substances. There's also more to learn about the species' lifecycle and behavior.
"This particular species fall square in the middle of the family, so we know it had to have a wood-eating ancestor," Haygood said. "Do they start out eating wood? We don't know anything about their life cycle, or where we might find more populations of them. And we have no idea how old they are. Are the specimens we studied a couple years old, or a couple hundred?"