In this beautiful lagoon off the coast of the southern Philippines lies these shelled giant black shipworms.
Meet the University of Utah scientist who helped discover this new organism, Margo Haygood.
“It falls in the shipworm family, but it’s completely different from all other shipworms. And although it’s been known for over 100 years from its shell, scientists have never had the opportunity to study the living animal before,” Haygood said.
That’s why they call this worm a “unicorn.” They heard of them in old animal literature and have been looking for the mythical giant shipworm for centuries.
“Those of us who are interested in these animals have looked and looked to find them,” Haygood said.
Haygood says the giants do not eat like regular-sized shipworms, which are only a few inches in length. Those use their mouths to eat through wood. But the giant guy, he doesn’t even use his mouth.
“When we got living specimens to examine, we realized that the end of the tube where the head and the mouth are is capped,” Haygood said.
Scientists found these shipworms rely on bacteria inside their gills – seen here in this petri dish – to produce food for them.
“Those bacteria are taking chemicals like hydrogen sulfide extracting the energy from those and using it to make food molecules just the way a plant uses the energy from the sun to make the food molecules that we eat,” Haygood said.
Haygood believes there is more to learn from these slippery giant creates, like potential life-saving medicine developed from the bacteria in their gills.