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New Mollusk Species Eats Rocks, Poops Sand And Scientists Aren't Sure Why

mason.zimmer 20 Jun 2019

One thing that growing up with a scientist as my dad has taught me is that there can sometimes be a gulf between when scientists find interesting and what the average person finds interesting.

This ended up working out to his advantage because whenever I'd go on about video games or Pokémon or something, he'd fire right back about some obscure sea slug that a research team he read about just discovered.

However, if he had told me about the creature we'll be talking about today, his plan probably would've backfired.

For years, scientists have been fascinated by mollusks called shipworms, who are named for their pesky habit of chewing up and digesting wood, particularly at sea.

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According to The New York Times, this interest isn't solely based on how fun it is to figure out how they do this, but also because the more kinds of shipworms they find, the more likely researchers are to develop new antibiotics.

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So when an international group of scientists heard rumors of a weird mollusk in the Abatan River of the Philippines, they were instantly curious.

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They were told to check the bottom of the river, where they'd find some telltale signs of the critters among the sandstones.

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And those telltale signs turned out to be to be the twin flags of the worms' syphons, which essentially means they found the worms thanks to their butts.

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And based on the fragments of stone they found inside the mollusks, it was clear that they were so attached to these rocks because they were eating them.

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This meant the science team had to think of a whole new way to classify their new discovery.

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As The New York Times reported, this wasn't just because of the unusual diet, but also because these new mollusks were missing a cecum, which is an organ shipworms use to digest wood.

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And so, they came up with Lithoredo abatanica as the name for this creature's genus and species.

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And as they studied them further, they found out what happened after these mollusks digested their rocks.

As Dr. Reuben Shipway of Northeastern University said, "We had a few animals in a makeshift aquarium. And you could put the animals in the aquarium and basically watch them excreting fine particles of sand out of their siphon."

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At the moment, how it manages to do any of this is kind of a mystery.

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And so, the scientists involved are breaking down the genetic profile of them and the microbes they work with to get a sense of their metabolism.

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And although they're early in the process of doing this, the mollusk is already proving very fascinating to study.

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Dr. Daniel Distel from Northeastern University said they've already found bacteria in their gills that they haven't seen in any other shipworm before.

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And the scientists are just as curious about why Lithoredo abatanica eat rocks as they are about how they do it.

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There's a chance that they only take in the rocks so they can grind up plankton, but the researchers are also considering the possibility that they're getting nutrients directly from the rocks in a way they don't know about.

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The mollusks' gills are also larger than any other shipworm, so the team is also looking into the significance of that.

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As you might have guessed, these little rock-eaters still have a whole lot of mysteries to unlock.

h/t: The New York Times

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