Creature from the Black Lagoon

Professor Dan Distel's gross discovery may help yield new antibiotics.

By Bill Ibelle

No living scientist had ever seen the bizarre giant shipworm alive—in fact, there was speculation that the creature was extinct.

So there was an audible gasp from his international colleagues when Northeastern professor Dan Distel slid the slimy mollusk out of its shell in a lab at the University of the Philippines.

“We had to delete the soundtrack from the video because there were a lot of expletives,” recalls Distel, a researcher at the Ocean Genome Legacy Center in Northeastern’s Marine Science Center. “Everyone had the same reaction: ‘Holy @!%#!!’”

What slid out was a 4-foot black mollusk the width of a baseball bat. The creature lives its entire life with its eyeless head stuck into the muck at the bottom of a remote lagoon on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

“There’s a lot we still don’t know,” says Distel. “We don’t know if its life span is two years, 20 years, or 200 years. We don’t even know exactly how they get nutrition, since they don’t appear eat.”

Distel says that instead of eating wood, like most shipworms, the rare giant variety uses bacteria inside its cells to make its food.

Finding the elusive Kuphus polythalamia is a major discovery for science—one that could have an impact on the development of new antibiotics and other medicines. In fact, this was the reason Distel and his colleagues were in the Philippines.

“Lots of bacteria found in nature make antibiotics, but they’re often not useful as drugs because they’re so potent that they’re toxic to humans,” he says. “My colleagues theorized that microorganisms living in a symbiotic relationship with animals might produce antibiotics that are less toxic to animals, since killing their hosts would also mean losing their homes.”


Distel and his colleagues got their big break while doing research on conventional shipworms at the University of the Philippines. One of the Filipino graduate students had come across a YouTube video of locals feasting on shipworms, which are considered a delicacy. One of them was gigantic.

“The video was all in Tagalog [the official language of the Philippines], so I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” says Distel. “But it was clear that they were eating a Kuphus.”

At 3–5 feet in length and 4–5 inches in width, Kuphus is the largest bivalve mollusk in the world.

Although scientists have known about Kuphus for more than 200 years, no living scientist had ever found anything but their empty tubular shells sticking out of the mud. The only scientific record of a living Kuphus dates back to the 1930s, and that was just a poorly preserved specimen in a lab.

With the help of Philippine scientists, Distel and his colleagues tracked the mollusks and packed several—shell and all—into PVC pipes filled with lagoon water to keep them alive during the journey back to the lab.

That’s where Distel and his colleagues slid the creatures out of their shells, and began dissecting them for scientific research. The team showed that the nutritional system is related to the creatures that live off toxic chemicals spewed from deep-sea volcanic vents. In these creatures, specialized bacteria transform toxic gases into nutrients that can feed the host.

Distel was lead author on a paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and prompted mainstream media coverage worldwide. The New Yorker likened the discovery to finding Loch Ness monster, and The Guardian of London compared it to discovering a living dinosaur.

Marine biology researcher Dan Distel says finding the giant shipworm was one of his professional dreams.Marine biology researcher Dan Distel says finding the giant shipworm was one of his professional dreams., Brooks Canaday

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