Huge, sulphur-powered worm discovery like something from science fiction

18 Apr 2017

Kuphus polythalamia without its shell. Image: Marvin Altamia

Just when we thought all of the strange and creepy animals have been discovered, the huge shipworm arrives to prove us wrong.

With estimates predicting that there may be as many as 1trn different species on our planet – only 1pc of which we have discovered so far – it should not come as any surprise that we find a new one from time to time.

However, a recent discovery in the Philippines has unearthed a bizarre worm-like creature that is not only huge, but also has a diet that consists of sulphur-eating bacteria.

Like an elephant tusk

In a research paper published to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of US and Filipino researchers was finally able to confirm that a species known to the local populace for centuries was indeed the first ever of its kind to be analysed by science.

Known as a giant shipworm, the creature typically lives in the watery confines of shallow lagoons.

To anyone who came across it in the wild, it would resemble an elephant tusk planted in the ground; similar to a plant with its top part exposed to the air, with the remaining body submerged in thick mud.

However, beneath the white tusk-like shell exists a 5ft slippery worm known as Kuphus polythalamia.

As the first researchers to carefully break the creature out of its shell, the team quickly discovered that it was unlike any wood-eating shipworm ever discovered.

Shipworm explained

How the shipworm lives. Infographic: University of Utah

Evolved differently to shipworm cousins

“I was awestruck when I first saw the sheer immensity of this bizarre animal,” said Marvin Altamia, researcher at the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines.

Adding to this, senior author Margo Haywood said: “Frankly, I was nervous. If we made a mistake, we could lose the opportunity to discover the secrets of this very rare specimen.”

Further analysis revealed that unlike its shipworm cousins that burrow into rotting trees, the giant shipworm burrows into mud filled with rotting wood that emits hydrogen sulphide.

Rather than eating solid material, this creature lives off bacteria within its gills that feed off the surrounding hydrogen sulphide.

These findings indicate that Kuphus polythalamia evolved differently to its cousins, as its internal digestive organs shrunk due to lack of use.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic