As alluded to by its name, most shipworms bore into and digest wood – making them a natural nemesis to docks, pier infrastructure, wooden vessels and sailors alike.
The mollusks digest the wood with the help of symbiotic bacteria that live in their gills, a process which may help in the development of new antibiotics and bio-fuels.
Wednesday, a team of scientists unveiled a new, very different species of shipworm – whose taste for rock sets the bivalve apart from thousands of others.
Although other animals burrow in stone, this new species, Lithoredo abatanica, is unique in that it actually eats the rock as it burrows, expelling sand as feces.
Gary Rosenberg, PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and curator and Pilsbry Chair of Malacology in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University was part of a team led by Reuben Shipway, PhD, and Dan Distel, PhD, of Northeastern University, that examined and described a new anatomically and morphologically divergent species of shipworm which was published recently by The Royal Society.
“Most shipworms have adaptions for burrowing into wood, small rows of sharp teeth on the exterior shell and an organ, called a ‘caecum’, that permits them to store and digest the wood they ingest,” explained Rosenberg, who is an author on the new species and the genus.
“Lithoredo abatanica is very different from all other species of shipworm it has evolved to burrow into rock, but we don’t yet know if it is actually digesting part of the rock.”
During the examination process it became clear that its wood-boring adaptations had been lost during its evolution.