Scientists Discover New Species Of Deep-Sea Clams That Subsist On Wood

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A wood-boring clam inside of a piece of wood.

Jenna Judge

Termites are well-known for their ability to bore through and consume wood in immense quantities, sometimes causing damage to human-built structures. This ability to chew through wood is uncommon in the animal kingdom and is made possible by microbes that live in the termite’s gut. Because the termites provide the microbes with safe housing, the microbes help break down complex sugars in wood that the termites would not be able to metabolize on their own. Using museum specimens, scientists recently discovered new species of deep-sea clams with wood-digesting microbes that live in the clam’s gills.

Despite how unlikely it may seem that these tiny clams will find sunken driftwood at the bottom of the ocean, “we’ve now found that there are six different groups  … and around sixty different species, ” says lead author Dr. Janet Voight, Associate Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Chicago’s Field Museum.

In this study, Dr. Voight described three new species, which were named after newly identified physical characteristics and families that have financially supported the research and museum.

So how does wood find its way to the bottom of the ocean? When a tree falls and its trunk gets washed out to sea, the wood floats until it gets waterlogged and sinks to the bottom of the ocean – sometimes to the deep sea where these tiny wood-boring clams feast on them. To drill into the wood, the clams use their muscles to repeatedly swing their shells from side-to-side until fragments of wood to flake off, which the clams then eat.

After big storms, we estimate that millions of tons of wood are washed out to sea,” says Dr. Voight, “The clams contribute to the cycling of carbon, they play an integral part in making the wood into something that the other animals at the bottom of the ocean can get energy from. It could even affect sea level rise. It blows me away.”

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