“There are two challenges every sea creature has to face: getting pure water in, so you can get oxygen to your gills, and getting rid of your waste. Because nobody wants to live in their poop. But here are these clams living with theirs, and actually thriving,” says Janet Voight, Associate Curator of invertebrate zoology at the Field Museum and the study’s lead author.
Scientists can put wood on the seafloor, return months or even years later, and recover it with “an amazing array of animals,” says Voight; other times wood that has been submerged for the same amount of time comes up so gnawed and bored-through that you can crumble it in your hand. This difference was a mystery, and Voight wanted to know why.
She took stock of the wood-boring clam species present in reports of sunken wood from all over the world, and she noticed a pattern. “There are six main branches in the wood-boring clam family tree, and every woodfall that was bored so heavily it was crushable by hand turned out to have been bored by a species from the same single branch of that family tree,” says Voight. She says she was surprised by this finding — “that’s not supposed to happen, you just assume that all wood-boring clam species, which tend to look pretty similar, bore into wood the same way. And yet, here’s one group that’s doing something totally different.”
Scientists had suggested that the extra-chewed-up wood was due to lots of larvae happening to be present nearby, or warmer water temperatures, but it turns out, the very nature of the clams may be responsible. Voight noted all of these extra-efficient, related species have a common trait where the sun don’t shine. As the clams dig and move into their boreholes in the wood, they fill the space around them inside the holes with their own feces.
“They don’t do it on purpose, their anatomy makes them do it,” says Voight. “When these clams bore into wood, their little shell does the boring.” Meanwhile, the clams’ siphons, tubular appendages for taking in water to get oxygen and expelling waste, stick out behind them. “In most wood-boring clams, these two “in and out” siphons are equal in length and stick out into the water column,” says Voight. “But in these related hyper-nasty borers, the siphon for expelling de-oxygenated water and feces is short; it stays inside the borehole in the wood. As a result, says Voight, “they poop in their borehole. They just have to, unless they really, really push.” The waste stays right there with the clam, forming a chimney that wraps around the siphon.
That animals would evolve an anatomy that keeps them in such close contact with their own waste, is surprising, says Voight: “It sure isn’t very hygienic, and yet they show no evidence of immune problems. They’re healthy, they’re clearly going to town on the wood. So why did they evolve this way?”
She and her colleagues hypothesized that these fecal chimneys might cue larval settlement: that their free-floating larvae might be able to detect the poop and make their way to it to make a home alongside members of their own species.
But that still leaves the problem: even if a poop chimney serves as a beacon for other members of their species to join them on their wood, how can these individuals survive as more and more larvae settle and the environment becomes filthier and oxygen becomes less available?
“This group of species of clam has been shown in previous studies to be unusually tolerant of low oxygen,” says Voight. They also have additional adaptations, like a mucosal lining of their fecal chimneys, and a substance like hemoglobin in their blood that picks up more oxygen; both may reduce the risk of sulfide poisoning from the waste. Taken together, these adaptations allow these speciesto survive in conditions that would make non-related wood-boring clams sick. The end result is more wood for the chimney-producing species to eat, live in, and for their offspring to settle on, unbothered by competitors.
Beyond just solving the mystery of the gross chewed-up wood with an even grosser solution, Voight says that the study illustrates the importance of looking at ecology with an understanding of how different species are related to each other.
“When you’re confronted with something that seems enigmatic, sometimes you need to step back and look at the big picture, put a lot of different studies together, to see how what had appeared to be enigmatic is a product of evolution,” says Voight. “Having a good family tree can help reveal patterns, and the more we know about the evolutionary histories of these different groups, the more we’ll be able to find out about how they fit together.”