When Reuben Shipway gently drew the thin, slimy creature from its burrow in a piece of driftwood, he knew right away that he had found something special.
Shipway, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center, was in the Philippines hunting for shipworms, a type of wood-boring clam that looks more like a worm wearing two shells as a hat than any typical bivalve.
This particular individual, found along with eight others burrowing in the same piece of wood, had uniquely-shaped pallets (small, hard structures used to plug the end of its burrow) and odd pink pinstripes on its siphons (tubes used to bring water to the gills and expel waste).
“No other species has pinstriped siphons,” Shipway says. “We knew we had something that was quite different.”
In a recent paper, the researchers announced that these shipworms, which they named Tamilokus mabinia, are not only a new species, but they are distinct enough from other shipworms to be designated an entirely new genus.
Shipway helped to discover another new genus of shipworm, announced in November of 2018, which marked the first time a new genus had been described since 1933. He is currently working with a group of researchers to describe a third.
“Reuben is the shipworm whisperer,” laughs Dan Distel, who leads the research team and directs the Ocean Genome Legacy Center.
Currently there are 70 recognized species of shipworms, broken into 17 genera (including Tamilokus). They can be found in every ocean in the world, living in driftwood, mangroves, seagrass roots, and mud. Some species are smaller than your pinky, while the largest is more than 5 feet long.