Shipworms are known for their different diet which includes eating wood and being able to digest it. However, scientists have discovered their relative which has a much more different and surprising diet. The newly discovered shipworm eats rocks and once it digests it through a yet unknown process, it turns it into sand. In new research, scientists explore through its digestion system which helps us learn much about the animal.
A group of researchers explored a new species of shipworm that feeds on rock instead of wood. Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Shipworms live in the water and are in the group of bivalve mollusks. Science knows them well as creatures that feed on and eat their way through wood and successfully digest it.
They could easily be found during the heyday of wooden ships, making holes in them to the point they’d become useless for sailing. Ships aren’t the only things that they feed on, however, they also feed on different wooden structures in the water, such as docks and piers. This newly discovered shipworm species doesn’t eat wood, instead it eats rocks, and after digestion, it excretes it out as sand.
The researchers said that the new shipworm species was first spotted back in 2006 according to a statement, but it wasn’t carefully studied until now. They broke them free from the rocks they occupied and studied them in tanks in the lab. The shipworms measured no longer than 150 millimeters long (six inches), were white, and rather resembled worms more than mollusks. They also had different physical traits compared to the wood-eating shipworms.
The researchers noticed that they have flatter teeth that are also larger in size compared to the wood-eating shipworms, which would be more suited to breaking through the rocks. They don’t have the sacs necessary for digesting wood like their relatives have. They believe that the shipworm species that eats rocks has diversified from their relatives long ago, although scientists aren’t sure why.
The team couldn’t figure out why the shipworms bore through rocks, as they likely don’t get any nutritional value from the rock itself. However, the team does note that they have bacteria and other microscopic life that live in the gills, while also suggesting they could manage to get food by sucking it into their siphons.
“We had a few animals in a makeshift aquarium,” Dr Reuben Shipway at the Northwestern University told The New York Times, “and you could put the animals in the aquarium and basically watch them excreting fine particles of sand out of their siphon.”