New genus and species of shipworm found in the Philippines

After nearly 100 years, a new genus of shipworm has been discovered by scientists.

Researchers from the University of the Philippines, Northeastern University, Drexel University and University of Utah found the new genus and species off the coast of Balayan Bay in the province of Batangas, Philippines. The large bay is part of the Verde Island Passage, considered to be the center of global marine biodiversity and is the richest area in Coral Triangle that covers six tropical countries.

They named the genus Tamilokus for “tamilok,” the local term for shipworm, and the species “mabinia” after Mabini, the town where the specimens were collected.

The new genus and species were revealed using integrative taxonomy studies that brought together perspectives from the fields of biology, ecology, morphology, anatomy and genetics. Micro-computed tomography scans helped researchers find unique distinctive high value characters of Tamilokus mabinia. The tool gave very high-resolution images in three dimensions that allowed the team to explore the internal structure of the organisms without having to slice and damage their tissues.The specimens were contrasted and compared with other shipworm genera holotypes held in the collection of Harvard Zoological Museum.

Tamilokus mabinia. Photo courtesy of Gisela P. Concepcion

According to the paper published in PeerJ in early February, a combination of characteristics differentiates Tamilokus mabinia from previously named genera and species, but it may be easily distinguished from the rest based on the structure of its pallet. Unlike other genera, Tamilokus mabinia has a simple triangular cup-shaped pallet and thick ovate stalk. The pallets are the two small plates located at the tail,near the pair of tubes or siphons through which water passes. The shape of the pallet is important in identifying the species of shipworms. Researchers also mentioned the posterior position of the stomach as the most striking feature of the new genus.This position of the stomach is found only in Tamilokus. Furthermore, Tamilokus has a characteristic structure absent in other genera, which the authors call the “cephaliccollar.”

Despite their worm-like bodies, shipworms are, in fact, clams that belong to Teredinidae,a group of wood-boring and wood-feeding marine bivalves. They are major agents in mangrove and other marine ecosystems, transferring energy from the terrestrial environment to the marine environment. Shipworms harbor bacteria in their gills that produce a suite of enzymes that break down cellulose from wood. This,in turn, is converted into energy and nutrients. Shipworms are also known for their economic impact, with their ability to destroy wooden piers, jetties, wharfs and fishing structures. Around the world, these “termites of the sea” cause billions of dollars in damage to coastal structures every year.

In 2017, an international team that included marine scientists from the University of the Philippines reported the presence of living giant shipworms, the first living specimens of the mysterious creature, in the Philippines.

The article originally appeared in the May-July 2019 issue of QSWOW News.