The discovery of the giant shipworm is a reminder of the major scientific breakthroughs that could be made by Filipino scientists.
OVER the past few days, the world has been enthralled by a rare, giant shipworm that was recently found in Mindanao. The creature, a monstrous five-foot-long species of bivalve mollusk called Kuphus polythalamia, had long eluded scientists. Daniel Distel, the American scientist who headed the research in the Philippines, announced the discovery. A marine biologist working with the Ocean Genome Legacy at the Northeastern University in the US, Distel had devoted decades of his career in search of a live specimen. By chance, a Filipino student showed him a news item of locals eating shipworms in the belief they had medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. A video clip showed what was identifiably Kuphus, with its distinctive tubular, long, chalky casing the size of a baseball bat. “After all these years, we found it on Youtube,” said Distel.
While there can’t be too many shipworm scientists in the world, and one can imagine they are few and far between in the Philippines, it is rather a shame that Filipino scientists did not draw attention to this remarkable animal before now.
Shipworms are ancient organisms that commonly feed on wood submerged in water. Boring through and destroying the wooden hulls of boats, ships, wharves and piers, shipworms deservedly have the reputation of being termites of the sea. Their diet, behavior, and the fact they have been around for so long, have made them of interest not only to biologists of marine invertebrates, but also to environmental historians who have documented 18th century infestations of naval shipworms that traveled across the world, carried by ships plying the great East to West trade routes. Adam Sundberg, an American environmental historian at Creighton University, has uncovered the disastrous story of Dutch shipworm epidemics. The naval shipworms, Teredo navalis, possibly originating from the East Indies, had invaded Holland and laid waste to the wooden wave breakers that had been built to keep the country safe from the sea.
The Philippine Kuphus species was an obscure variety of and intriguingly different to the common wood-boring and wood-eating bivalve. It has a minimal digestive system and does not dine on wood. Rather, at the tapered end of its body it has snorkel-like gilled siphons filled with bacteria that thrive on sulfur –the swamp gas smelling of rotten eggs. The photographs and video accompanying the study show a bizarre animal encased in a long protective plaster cast. When the casing was carefully tapped open, a glistening blue-black, thick and muscular-bodied, eel-like organism slithered out. Unlike the pale-colored, delicate, small and wriggling mollusks he was used to seeing, Distel reported being quite shocked. “This thing was a beast – solid and quite slippery,” he said.
While collectors have eagerly sought out the robust, strange-looking shells, scientists did not know the precise habitats of the live animals nor how many were in existence. For the first time in hundreds of years, a live specimen of the longest living bivalve known to man had been located, could now be studied, and its gene material preserved.
Distel published the findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. His international research team was composed of marine biologists from the US, France and the Philippines. The seven Filipino team members came from the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines, Diliman, and Sultan Kudarat State University. This cohort is as uncommon as the discovery they made.
The Philippines is one of the most ecologically diverse countries on the planet. In the past 25 years, almost 300 new species of plants and animals have been found. Just on Luzon, 28 new mammals unique to the Philippines were discovered in the last few years. Such discoveries potentially open up research into an array of scientific fields, from medicine and genetics, to environmental history.
Scientific discoveries come about by collaboration. But if we remain bogged down by our Third World problems, we will not be able to nurture local scientists who will take the lead in designing and undertaking high-caliber research. It will be a tragedy for the Philippines if the government neglects its scientists and allows scientific resources to stagnate and research cultures to shrivel. We will risk missing out on some of the most exciting scientific breakthroughs of the century, many of which can be found in our own backyard and pioneered by our own scientists.