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Eats Rock, Poops Sand

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Eats Rock, Poops Sand

Rock eating Shipworm

This translucent shipworm eats rocks and poops sand. To me as a sand enthusiast it’s an immediate like! Why it chews on rocks is an exciting unknown. 
Photo: Courtesy of Dan Distel.

“Look at in the rocks at the bottom of the river” was a tip from a local that led a research team to the discovery of an entirely new species of shipworms – the Lithoredo abatanica. The clam, only found at a particular stretch of a river in the Philippines, in the size that fits in the palm of a hand, was before only known among locals. 

Unlike all other known shipworms, this translucent beauty doesn’t eat wood as ship bottoms but chew on rocks. What’s left comes out as sand. The animal lives in bedrock where it munches away leaving it looking like a swiss cheese. Any burrows it abandons become homes to other animals like small fish, crabs, and shrimps. The rock eatin activity and with every new grain of sand formed the river will change ever so little. With time it’ll influence the river’s direction. For this the shipworm is named a “dominant ecosystem engineer”.

This not the first animal found to eat rock and poop sand. Most white sand marvelled at on beaches on Hawaii, for example, comes from the poop of parrotfish. Rocks, weathering and thousands or millions of years are involved in making most other sand. 

The unknown is the exciting
Why and how this clam eats rock, is still to be figured out. ”The rock has no nutrients so there’s nothing much in there that this animal could live on” professor Dan Distel at Northeastern University, USA, says. “That tells us it’s doing something else. And what that something else is should be very interesting.” In the answers, there might be clues to better understand and to improve also human health. Bacteria in shipworms gills can be adapted into antibiotics and other medicines.

The discovery of a creature that eats rock, poops sand and can engineer an ecosystem is pretty neat. Now I just got to find the sand!

Rock burrowing shipworm
Lithoredo abatanica -the only known shipworm that burrows into rock. Photo courtesy of Dan Distel

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