What good is a clam?


When I mention to people that I study bivalves, I can sometimes sense from their facial expressions that they are secretly asking “why?” While clams are perfectly content to keep doing what they’re doing without being thanked, I think it’s important to enumerate all of the ways they make our world more livable and functional.

Various roles that freshwater mussels can play in their local food webs (Source: Vaughn and Hoellein, 2018)

Bivalves are ecosystem engineers. While they may seem rather stationary and not up to much at any particular time, they are actually always working to actively maintain their habitat. The majority of clams are filter-feeders, meaning that they use their gills to gather particles from the water column for food. Some of these particles are ingested as food and later pooped out. Some inedible particles are discarded immediately by the clam as “pseudofeces”. Both mechanisms serve as a bridge between the water column and the benthos (the sediment at the bottom). In this way, clams are engines that take carbon fixed by algae floating in the water and transfer that material to be stored in the sediment. Their bodies also act as nutrition to feed all sorts of animals higher on the food chain like sea stars, lobsters, seabirds, sea otters and humans that depend on bivalves as food. They are literally sucking up the primary productivity (algae) to be used by the rest of the food chain.

The filtration rate of oysters. Graphic from The Nature Conservancy

Different clam species vary in their precise filtration rate (how fast they can inhale and exhale water, filtering the particles within), but it is prodigious. Some freshwater mussels, for example, can pick-through 1-2 liters of water per hour for every gram of their own flesh. Since these individual bivalves can weigh over 100 g, they are capable of picking the food out of an immense quantity of water. In doing so, bivalves help improve the clarity of the water column, allowing more sunlight to reach deeper into the water body (the photic zone), providing more energy for additional photosynthesis to occur. While there are examples where invasive bivalves such as zebra or quagga mussels take this phenomenon too far, in well-functioning ecosystems, the filtration activity of clams helps improve the productivity of the community.

An oyster reef. Source: The Nature Conservancy

Bivalves help make sediment through their filtration of material from the water column, and they also engineer and manipulate the sediment directly. Some bivalves, like oysters, are able to make huge mounds of dirt that serve as habitat for all sorts of life, increasing the diversity of the community. They do so both by excreting sediment, and also by passively trapping it between the shells of neighboring oysters (“baffling”). By doing so, they reduce rates of coastal erosion and increase the biodiversity of wetlands. For this reason, New York and other communities plan to seed oyster reefs to help fight sea level rise and reduce the threat of storm surges like the one that occurred during Superstorm Sandy.

Comparison of sediments without bioturbation by digging animals, and with. Notice how the non-bioturbated sediment is layered and darkened due to activity by anaerobic bacteria, while the well-oxygenated, mixed sediment is light all the way through. From Norkko and Shumway, 2011

Other “infaunal” bivalves (burrowers) help to aerate the sediment through their tunneling, bringing oxygen deep under the surface of the dirt. This mixing of the sediment (also called bioturbation) ensures that nutrition from deep under the sediment surface is again made available for other organisms. Some bivalves can bore into coral reefs or solid rock, creating burrows which serve as habitat for other animals and can free up minerals for use by the surrounding ecosystem. Helpful shipworms assist in eating wood, assisting in returning nutrients stored in that tissue to the ecosystem as well.

Enormous grouping of giant clams in a lagoon in French Polynesia. From Gilbert et al., 2005

Bivalves of course are also famous for their shells, and this activity also provides habitat to sponges, snails, barnacles and many other encrusting organisms specially adapted to live on bivalve shells and found nowhere else. Giant clams are the most legendary “hypercalcifiers,” and in some regions like New Caledonia can rival reef-building corals in terms of biomass. In areas where soft-bottoms dominate, bivalves like hammer oysters, adapted to “rafting” on the quicksand-like surface of the soft sediment, can assist by providing a platform for other animals to take refuge. In the deep sea, bathymodiolid mussels and other chemosymbiotic bivalves can feed directly on the methane and sulfur emitted from hot vents or cold seeps with the help of symbiotic bacteria, creating dense reefs which provide food and habitat for all sorts of life. Even once the clams die, their shells can continue to serve as homes for other creatures.

Crabs feeding on Bathymodiolus in the deep sea (NOAA)

The shells of clams provide great scientific value in understanding our world. Much like tree rings serve as a record of environment thousands of years into the past, growth rings in clam shells serve as a diary of the animal’s life. These rings can be yearly, lunar, tidal or even daily in rhythm, with each ring serving as a page in the diary. The chemistry of those “pages” can be analyzed to figure out the temperature the clam experienced, what it ate, whether it suffered from pollution, and even the frequency of storms! The study of rings in the hard parts of animals is called sclerochronology, and it’s what first drew me to study bivalves. I was so fascinated by the idea that our beaches are covered with high-resolution records of the ocean environment, waiting to be cut open and read.

This giant clam shell recorded an interruption in the animal’s daily growth caused by a typhoon! From Komagoe et al., 2018

While they don’t owe us anything, clams provide a lot of value to humans as well, serving as a sustainable and productive source of food. Humans have been farming bivalves for thousands of years, as evidenced by “oyster gardens” and shell middens which can be found all over the world. Particularly in seasons when food is scarce on land, native peoples could survive by taking advantage of the wealth of the sea, and bivalves are one of the most plentiful and accessible marine food sources available. But they aren’t just the past of our food; they may be part of the future. Bivalves are one of the most sustainable sources of meat known, requiring very little additional food to farm and actively cleaning the environment in the process. Mussels grown out on a rope farm are an easy investment, growing quickly and with very little required energy expenditure. Someday, giant clams may provide the first carbon-neutral meat source, as they gain their food from symbiotic algae within their flesh. I have never eaten one, but I’ve heard they’re delicious.

A shell midden in Argentina. Photo from Mikel Zubimendi, Wikipedia
Image result for mussel farm
Mussels being farmed on ropes

Clams are heroes we didn’t know we needed and maybe don’t deserve. They ask for nothing from us, but provide vast services which we take for granted. So the next time you see an inconspicuous airhole in the sand, thank the clam that could be deep below for aerating the sediment. The shell of that long-dead mussel at your feet may have fed a sea star, and now is a home for barnacles and many other creatures. While that mussel was alive, it sucked in algae to improve water quality on our beaches. And the sand itself may contain countless fragments of even more ancient shells. Clams silently serve as an important cog in the vast machine that makes our oceans, rivers and lakes such amazing places to be. Thank you clams!


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