Oyster. Reading that word, you probably formed an image in your mind of a rough-shelled creature with a shiny mother-of-pearl (nacreous) inside that someone pulled out of some silt in an estuary. And yes, that’s what most oysters look like. Some oysters are of additional economic value through their creation of pearls. These pearl oysters have long, straight hinge lines and live in the tropics in and around coral reefs.
The hammer oysters are another sort of oyster, not of the Ostreidae family that includes most of the bivalves we think of as oysters, but still closely related and in its own family, the Malleidae. Malleus is the latin word for hammer, and the most distinctive genus of hammer oysters indeed look just like a hammer sitting on the seafloor.
What the…that thing’s alive? How does that even work? This is an oyster? That’s how I imagine the first scientist to discover the hammer oyster reacting. Because they are weird and rather incomprehensible-looking. But when you know the way they live, it makes more sense.
The hammerhead part of the oyster is just a super elongated hinge. The creature has a long, straight hinge like other oysters, but it has evolved to instead have a relatively narrow set of valves attached to that ridiculously overbuilt hinge. Like other oysters, they secrete byssal threads from their backside to attach themselves to the bottom. The narrow valves commonly poke up out of sandy bottoms in tropical waters nearby coral reefs. They do particularly well in seagrass beds, and often live in large colonies similar to other oysters.
The absurd hinge helps these creatures to stay anchored into the sediment, but also serves as “wings” that help it avoid sinking into the sediment over time. One thing us humans don’t realize sitting on sand is that it actually acts like a liquid. Over time, if we sat on wet sand, we would likely begin to sink in unless we spread out our arms and legs to increase our surface area. In the ocean, all sand is quicksand. Different organisms have different strategies to avoid being engulfed by the sediment they live on, and the hammer oyster has had good success with its strategy. It doesn’t care that you think it looks weird. It just sits there, filtering water for passing food particles and plankton. It’s very good at it, has been perfecting the strategy for over 250 million years, and doesn’t need your smartass remarks, thank you very much.
There are many types of giant clam. Not all of them are giant; the boring giant clam, Tridacna crocea, only grows to 10 cm long or so. The boring giant clam is not so named because it’s dull; its main skill is its ability to bore into the coral of its coral reef home and live with its entire shell and body embedded in the living coral. They sit there with their colorful mantle edge exposed from a thin opening in the coral, harvesting energy from sunlight like the other giant clams. When disturbed by the shadow of a human or other such predator, they retract their mantle and close their shell, encased by an additional wall of coral skeleton. It’s a clever defensive strategy, and they are some of the most numerous giant clams in many reefs in the Eastern and Southern Equatorial Pacific.
But it’s always been a mystery of how they bore away at the coral so efficiently, and how they continue to enlarge their home as they grow their shell. There are other bivalves that are efficient borers, including the pholad clams (“piddocks”) which use sharp teeth on their hinge to carve their way into solid rock, and the shipworms, which have abandoned their protective shell and instead use their two valves as teeth to burrow into wood. Both of these methods of boring are pretty straightforward.
But the boring giant clam has no such adaptation. It does not have large teeth on its hinge to carve at the coral. Such abrasion of the coral would also not explain how they widen the opening of their cubby-holes to allow their shell to grow wider. This mystery has long confounded giant clam researchers. I myself have wondered about it, and was surprised to find there was no good answer in the literature about it. But now, a team of scientists may have cracked the problem once and for all.
At the back of T. crocea‘s shell at the hinge, there is a large “byssal opening” with a fleshy foot which they can extend out of the opening to attach themselves to surfaces. Giant clams that don’t embed in coral (“epifaunal,” resting on the surface of the coral rather than “infaunal,” buried in the coral) lack this opening. The researchers suspected that the foot was the drilling instrument the clam used to create its home.
How could a soft fleshy foot drill into the solid calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeleton of corals? I can confirm from experience that my own foot makes for a very ineffective drilling instrument in such a setting. But T. crocea has a secret weapon: the power of acid-base chemistry. CaCO3 can be dissolved by acids. You may well have taken advantage of this chemistry to settle your acid stomach by taking a Tums, which is made of CaCO3 and reacts with the excessive hydrochloric acid in your stomach, leaving your tummy with a more neutral pH. pH is a scale used to measure acidity, with low numbers indicating very acidic solutions like lemon juice, and high pH indicating a basic solution like bleach.
Scientists are well aware of the hazards corals face from decreasing pH (increasing acidity) in the oceans. All the CO2 we are emitting, in addition to being a greenhouse gas, dissolves in the ocean as carbonic acid and gets to work reacting and dissolving away the skeletons of corals and any other “calcifying” organisms that make shells. It makes it harder for corals to form their skeletons and is already worsening die-offs of corals in some areas. The researchers suspected that the clams use this phenomena to their advantage at a small scale, lowering the pH with their foot somehow to dissolve away the coral to make their borehole.
But they needed to prove it, and that was a challenge. Giant clams can be unwilling research participants. I myself have observed this in trying to take samples of their body fluid for my own research. When they sense the presence of a predator, they immediately clam up in their protective shell. I used a small wedge to keep their shells open to allow me to take a sample of their body fluid, but the researchers working on T. crocea needed to convince the clam to place its foot on a piece of pH-sensitive foil, keep it there and do whatever acid-secreting magic allows it to burrow into coral. They would then be able to measure whether it indeed is making the water around its foot more acidic, and by how much.
In what I can only assume was an extended process of trial and error and negotiation with a somewhat unwilling research subject, the researchers found exactly the right angle needed to convince the clam that it was safe enough to try making a coral home. But it was not in coral, instead sitting in an aquarium, on top of a special type of foil that changes color when exposed to changing pH, like a piece of high-tech litmus paper. The researchers discovered that their suspicions were correct: the clams do make the area around their feet significantly more acidic than the surrounding seawater, as much as two to four pH units lower. Where seawater is around a pH of around 8, the clams were regularly reducing pH to as low as 6 (about the level of milk) and sometimes as low as 4.6 (about the pH of acid rain). Small differences in pH can make a big difference in the power of an acid because each pH unit corresponds to 10x more protons (hydrogen ions, H+) in the water. The protons are the agent that dissolves CaCO3. Each proton can take out one molecule of coral skeleton. The clams are dissolving away coral skeleton to make holes with only their feet!
But what in T. crocea‘s foot allows them to make acid? I know that my foot does not do this, though that would be a very entertaining and obscure superpower. The researchers found the enzymes called vacuolar-type H+-ATPase (VHA) present in great quantities in the outermost cells of the clam’s feet. These enzymes are found throughout the tree of life and are proton pumps that can quickly reduce pH through active effort. Other prior researchers like the influential Sir Maurice Yonge, a legendary British marine biologist who worked extensively with giant clams, had suspected that the clams had used acid but had never been able to detect a change in pH in the seawater around the clams’ feet through more conventional methods. It was only because of new technologies like the pH paper that this research team was able to finally solve this issue. And now, I suspect other groups will want to re-investigate the importance of VHA in their study organisms. Many branches of the tree of life may be utilizing acid-base chemistry to their advantage in ways we never had previously imagined.
The heart cockle (Corculum cardissa) is so named because of its heart shaped shell. It is native to warm equatorial waters of the Indo-Pacific. While many bivalves sit with the their ventral valve facing down, the heart cockle sits on its side, with one side of both valves facing downward. The valves have adapted to resemble wings and are flat on the bottom, providing surface area that allows the bivalve to “raft” on the surface of soft sandy sediment and not sink. They may also sit embedded in little heart-shaped holes on the tops of corals.
Heart cockles are a member of a small club of bivalves which partner with symbiotic algae for nutrition created by photosynthesis. Most of the modern photosymbiotic bivalves are in the family Cardiidae, the cockles. The giant clams (Tridacninae) are also in this family and have a similar partnership with the same genus of Symbiodinium algae. This algae is also found in many species of coral.
So when you find a live heart cockle, it is often green in color, because of the presence of this algae near the surface of its tissue. Its shell has adapted to be “windowed” (semi-transparent) to allow in light for the algae to harness to make sugars. The algae are housed in networks of tubes within the soft tissue of the cockle. They trade sugars with their host in exchange for nitrogen and carbon from the clam.
As I’ve mentioned before regarding the giant clams, this is a very productive partnership and has evolved separately several times in the history of bivalves. However, we don’t know why almost all examples of modern bivalve photosymbiosis occur in the cockles. Why aren’t the heart cockles giant like the giant clams? What features are necessary to allow this symbiosis to develop? These are the kind of questions I hope to help answer in my next few years of work.
My latest clamuscript is published in Palaios, coauthored with my advisor Matthew Clapham! It’s the first chapter of my PhD thesis, and it’s titled “Identifying the Ticks of Bivalve Shell Clocks: Seasonal Growth in Relation to Temperature and Food Supply.” I thought I’d write a quick post describing why I tackled this project, what I did, what I found out, and what I think it means! Raw unformatted PDF of it here on my publication page.
Why I did this project:
I study the growth bands of bivalve (“clam”) shells. Bivalves create light and dark shell growth bands as they grow their shells, much like the rings of a tree. The light bands form during happy times for the clam, when it is growing quickly and putting down lots of carbonate. The dark bands appear during times of cessation, when the bivalve ceases growth during a hibernation-like period. This can happen in the cold months, or the hot months, or both, or neither, depending on the clam and where it lives. It turns out that there are a lot of potential explanations for why these annual cessations of growth happen. Different researchers have suggested through the years that temperature (high or low) is the biggest control on the seasons that bivalves grow, but others have suggested that food supply is more important. Others say it’s mostly a function of the season they reproduce, when they’re putting most of their energy into making sperm/eggs and not growing their bodies. I wanted to try to see if I could find trends across all of bivalves which would shed light on which factors are important in determining their season of growth.
What I did:
I read a ton of papers in the historical literature about bivalves. These were written by people in many fields: aquaculture, marine ecology, paleoclimate researchers (using the clams shells as a chemical record of temperature), and more. All of the papers were united by describing the seasons that the bivalves grew, and the seasons that they stopped growing. I ended up with nearly 300 observations of marine (saltwater) bivalve growth for dozens of species from all around the world. I had papers as old as the earliest 1910s, and some as new as last year.
We have mussels, oysters, scallops, clams, cockles, geoducks, giant clams, razor clams, quahogs, and more in the database. Bivalves that burrow. Bivalves that sit on the surface of the sediment. Bivalves that stick onto rocks. Bivalves that can swim. With each, I noted data that the researchers recorded. If they grew during a season, I coded it as a 1. If they didn’t, I coded it as a 0. So a bivalve growing in summer but not winter would be recorded as 1,0. I also recorded environmental data including temperature of the location in winter and summer in the location, as well as seasonal supply of chlorophyll (a measure of phytoplankton, which is the main source of food for most clams). It turned out that not enough of the studies recorded temperature or chlorophyll for their sites, so I wanted to back these up with an additional data source. I downloaded satellite-based temperature and chlorophyll data for each location, as well as additional studies which directly measured chlorophyll at each site. I wanted lots of redundant environmental data to ensure that any trend or lack of trend I observed in my analysis was not due to a weakness of the data.
I then compared the occurrence of shutdown by season with these environmental variables using a statistical technique called regression. Regression basically involves trying to relate a predictor variable (in this case, latitude, temperature and chlorophyll during a certain season) to the response variable (did the clam grow in that season or not?). We wanted to see which environmental variable relates most closely to whether or not the clam grows or not. Because our dependent variable was binary (0 or 1), we used a technique called logistic regression, which tries to model the “log odds” of an event occurring in response to the predictor variable. That log odds can then be back-calculated to probability of the event occurring.
What we found:
In a clamshell, we found that latitude (distance from the equator) is a very good predictor of whether or not a bivalve shuts down for the winter. As you’d expect, bivalves in the far north and far south of our planet are more likely to take a winter nap. However, bivalves at the equator mostly grow year round and are not likely to take a summer nap. In relation to temperature, the lower the winter temperature, the more likely the bivalve is to stop shell growth. High summer temperature is not as good a predictor for the occurrence of a summer shutdown, but the majority of summer shutdowns seem to occur at the low temperate latitudes, where the difference between the annual range of temperature is largest. Unlike at the equator, where bivalves likely can adapt to the hottest temperatures and be happy clams, they have to adapt to a huge range of temperatures in places like the American Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the Adriatic and Gulf of California. And if they are restricted at the northward end of their range, they may have no choice but to shut down in summer as there is nowhere cooler to migrate to.
Food supply, on the other hand, is not a good predictor of when bivalves shut down. When we went into this project, we expected food to be a powerful control on seasonal growth because it is intuitive and well understood that the better fed a bivalve is, the larger it will grow overall. But the seasonal low amount of chlorophyll (and therefore the amount of photosynthesizing plankton) in the bivalves’ areas had no relationship to whether or not the bivalve shut down in a certain season. To double check that this wasn’t a weakness in my satellite data, I downloaded additional direct observations from the same places as many bivalve studies in the dataset, but I still couldn’t find the relationship. We propose that the seasonal supply of phytoplankton is not well related to seasonal growth of bivalves because: 1) phytoplankton supply isn’t very seasonal in nature in most of the sites we studied. There are peaks in multiple seasons rather than a clean up and down wave shape like temperature. 2) Bivalves are pretty flexible in what they eat. They also eat other types of plankton and suspended particles that are even less seasonal. It may be pretty difficult to find bivalves that are seasonally starving. One of the most probable places to find such starvation shutdowns might be the poles, where seasonal ranges of temperature are quite small but plankton does really have a seasonal pattern of availability. More research will be needed to describe the nature of polar bivalves and why they shut down growth.
This is the first chapter of my PhD. I have two more chapters I’m working on, both related to the geochemistry of bivalve shells. I am writing those manuscripts this summer and looking for postdoctoral fellowships in the fall related to geochemistry of marine organisms in the fossil record. I hope to pursue more projects looking at the season of growth in bivalves, switching to understanding the role that changing seasonal cycles in their environment and biology play in their evolution. Do bivalves that live closer together tend to reproduce at different times? Can we track season of reproduction in relation to temperature and food supply? There are a lot more clam stories to be told and I look forward to sharing them all with you. Until the next research blog,
I study the giant clams, bivalves which can grow over three feet long and and are willingly “infected” by a symbiotic algae which they house in an altered stomach cavity. They provide their algae partners with nitrogen, a stable environment and even funnel light in their direction, and the algae happily share the fruit of their labor in the form of sugars. Imagine yourself swallowing algae, storing it in your gut and developing windows in your flesh to let light into your stomach. You’d never have to eat again. This is the growth hack that enables the giant clams to grow to unusual sizes. But it turns out that this lovely, beautiful partnership may not have started so peacefully. The algae may have made an offer the clam couldn’t refuse.
A team from University of Quebec recently discussed what such a fresh infection looks like in mussels and it ain’t pretty. The mussels basically have their shells and bodies overgrown by parasitic Coccomyxa algae, leaving its flesh bright green and transforming its shell from the classic elongated, acute angled margin typical of Mytilus mussels into a strange L-shaped overhang. The more algae are present in the mussel, the more extreme this deformity becomes. The researchers propose that this is no accident, but that as they move in, the algae also manipulates the biochemical pathway that the mussel uses to create its shell.
Mussels, like all bivalves, create their shells by laying down calcium carbonate in layers at the outer edge of the shell. The calcium is sourced from salts in the water column and the carbon primarily comes from carbonate ions also available in the water. This reaction is easier when the pH of the clam’s internal fluid is higher (less acidic), and that is exactly what the algae may assist with. Algae like all plants take in carbon dioxide to use in photosynthesis, and in doing so they increase the pH of the mussel’s body fluid,
The authors note that the region of shell which experiences abnormal thickening in the infected mussels is also the most exposed to light. The Coccomyxa algae may be causing runaway calcification of shell in the regions that they infect, and even may be directly assisting with the calcification in an additional way through the action of an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase, which is used in both their photosynthesis and in shell production (I won’t get into the nitty gritty of that reaction here). But the calcification of the mussels does appear to be in overdrive, as infected mussels were also observed to make pearls!
The algae’s photosynthesis may be assisting the mussel’s shell formation, though overall these are still quite unhealthy organisms of lower weight than their uninfected brethren. Still, Coccomyxa is known to form symbioses with lichens and mosses, so it could be that with enough generations of collaboration and a bit of evolution, the harmful algal infection could become a much more mutually beneficial partnership. It’s not so far fetched to imagine that an ancestor of today’s giant clams got a bad case of gastritis and decided to make the best of a bad situation. Making a deal with their invaders, they became greater than the sum of their parts and evolved to be the giant hyper-calcifiers we know today.
Visiting Pinnacles National Park the other day, we were lucky to spot California condors several times. Their wingspan can reach up to 3 m. Their graceful flight is a sight to behold as they ride the warm updrafts of between the pinnacles of rock in the park, with their primary feathers bending up like a conductor’s fingers. Condors are the only remaining members of the genus Gymnogyps, which once contained five species. Four are only known from fossil specimens and went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene (~12,000 years ago), but Gymnogyps once ranged across the Americas. As such, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a relic species; a survivor of a long but mostly extinct lineage.
By 1987, poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction had reduced the population to 27 individuals, of which 22 were captured and put into an emergency captive breeding program. In the thirty years since this project began, the population has increased to around 450 individuals. The program was expensive, painstaking and a massive undertaking. To this day, all captive-bred individuals are individually numbered and continually monitored. They even have a very adorable directory on the Pinnacles site where you can look each bird up by its number. We saw #606 and #463, and a couple others from farther away that we couldn’t read.
Condor #463 was born at a breeding center in Idaho
California condors can be distinguished by the much more common turkey vultures by their underwing coloration, with large white patches at the front of the wings. I think that turkey vultures are fun to watch as they fly in circles over the highways searching for roadkill, but when you see a condor fly low over your head, it is awe-inspiring. Even the smaller juveniles have much larger, more pronounced heads than turkey vultures, and seem to fly even more effortlessly with a more gently curving V shape in their wings. We had stopped on the trail to discuss field markings for condors with another hiker when #463 soared over our heads, and we couldn’t help but jump for joy and hug each other at the privilege to see one of the famous condors ourselves.
As an advocate for invertebrate conservation, I have been known to unfairly poke fun at the human tendency to focus on large, charismatic megafauna for conservation as opposed to smaller and less exciting species that may make up more of an ecosystem’s biomass, or represent a more important link in the local food chain. Pandas have used up billions of conservation dollars, yet they are kind of an evolutionary oddball with their poorly evolved guts that can barely digest their chosen bamboo food, and their infamous failure to successfully mate. Koalas have a similar story. We reformed tuna fishing not out of concern for the fish, but because of concern for dolphins getting mistakenly caught. We tend to put a lot of time and effort into conserving species that we consider cute, or cool, or awe-inspiring. The condors are important decomposers of carcasses, ranging over huge distances in their search for food and efficiently returning the nutrients of dead animals back to the ecosystem. But the public outcry motivating their rescue was greatly helped by the fact that these creatures are incredibly impressive megafauna. If the turkey vulture was critically endangered, it might not get the same funding supporting its conservation.
But looking at the condors, my skepticism melted away and I was left with only gratitude that I was able to witness the grandeur of these beasts as they soared through the air; gratitude that I was able to see them myself and not only read about them in a book. I will never see a Steller’s Sea Cow, or a Great Auk, or a thylacine, or a dodo, because they disappeared before we realized what we were doing, and that extinction is a real and irreversible loss. Perhaps Gymnogyps won’t be around in 10,000 years. Their lineage originally evolved to feed on the giant carcasses from a collection of North American megafauna that is believed to have been hunted to death by humans (though that is a topic of endless debate). But if we hadn’t intervened to save the condors, we would have had to live with the guilt of knowing that we as a species committed the killing blow and did nothing to stop when we knew the reality of our crime. Instead we went to extreme lengths to save these unusual and majestic creatures because we feel empathy for them. As I watched condor 463 soar over my head, I felt relief, and pride, and hope. Success stories are important motivators for conservation, and I couldn’t help but think his wings were spelling out a “V” for victory as he flew away.
Some of you may be aware that I harbor great affection for hermit crabs. I own terrestrial Caribbean hermits. Your mental image of hermits may feature a wardrobe of gastropod (snail) shells, which are by far the most common mollusk contractor they use to construct their homes, but as I’ve discussed, they actually have great flexibility in their choice of abode. It turns out that there is yet another option which hermits take advantage of as a mobile home: the flat shells of bivalves and limpets!
Porcellanopagurus nihonkaiensis is a species of marine hermit found off the coast of Japan. It uses the relatively flat, unenclosed shells of clams (and also limpets) for protection. Though lacking the 360 degree protection afforded by a snail shell, bivalve shell valves can be more plentiful in the marine environment, and being able to utilize a different shell frees them from competition with other hermit species which are specialized to work with snail shells.
Hermits typically have a long, soft coiled body which fits in where the snail’s body once was, using “uropodal endopods” (little feet at the end of their bodies) to hold themselves in the shell. Some species like Porcellanopagurus, however hold a bivalve or limpet shell on their backs, which still provides protective cover for their bodies. One recent study talked about their method of acquiring and holding the shell. They actually took a cute little series of pictures showing how the crab picks up a shell it with its front claws, places it on its back and then holds it in place with their fourth pair of legs. So now I’ve found a creature that combines my beloved clams and hermit crabs in one fun package. Gonna have to keep an eye out if I ever dive off of Japan!
Clams are traditionally the victims of the aquatic realm. With some exceptions, clams are generally not predatory in nature, preferring to passively filter feed. When they are attacked, their defenses center around their protective shell, or swimming away, or just living in a place that is difficult for predators to reach. They are picked at by crabs, crushed in the jaws of fish, and pried apart by sea stars. But some clams are sick of being the victims. They have big dreams and places to be. For these clams, the rest of the tree of life is a ticket to bigger and better things. These clams have evolved to live inside of other living things.
Pocketbook mussels, for example, have a unique problem. They like to live inland along streams but their microscopic larvae would not be able to swim against the current to get upstream. The mussels have adapted a clever and evil strategy to solve this problem: they hitch a ride in the gills of fish. The mother mussel develops a lure that resembles a small fish, complete with a little fake eyespot, and invitingly wiggles it to attract the attention of a passing fish. When the foolish fish falls for the trick and bites the mussel’s lure, it explodes into a cloud of larvae which then flap up to attach to the gill tissue of the fish like little binder clips. They then encyst themselves in that tissue and feed on the fish’s blood, all the while hopefully hitching a ride further upstream, where they release and settle down to a more traditional clammy life of filter-feeding stuck in the sediment.
Clams live in the gills of all sorts of organisms. Because they broadcast spawn, any passing animal may breathe in clam larvae which find the gills a perfectly hospitable place to settle. Sure, it’s a bit cramped, but it’s safe, well oxygenated by definition and there is plenty of food available. They also may just settle on the bodies of other organisms. Most of these gill-dwelling clams are commensal: that means that their impact on the host organism is fairly neutral. They may cause some localized necrosis in the spot they’re living, but they’re mostly sucking up food particles which the host doesn’t really care about. In addition, in crabs and other arthropods, these clams will get shed off periodically when the crab molts away its exoskeleton, so they don’t build up too heavily.
While being a parasite is often denigrated as taking the easy way out, it is actually quite challenging to pursue this unusual lifestyle. Parasitism has evolved a couple hundred times in 15 different phyla, but it is rare to find some organism midway in the process of becoming a true parasite. One team of researchers just published their observations of a commensal clam, Kurtiella pedroana, which may be flirting with true parasitism. These tiny clams normally live in the gill chambers of sand crabs on the Pacific coasts of the Americas. They attach their anchoring byssal threads to the insides of the chambers and live a comfortable life until the crabs molt, when they are shed away. The crabs mostly are unaffected by their presence, but the researchers noticed that some of the clams had actually burrowed into the gill tissue itself. This is an interesting development, because the clams would not be able to filter feed in such a location, so they must have been feeding on the crab’s hemocoel (internal blood). These unusual parasitic individuals are currently a “dead end” as they haven’t figured out how to get back out to reproduce, but if they ever do, they could potentially pass on this trait and become a new type of parasitic clam species. The researchers have potentially observed a rare example of an animal turning to the dark parasitic side of life, with some living in a neutral commensal way and other innovative individuals seeking a bit more out of their non-consensual relationship with their host crabs. Considering the irritation that other bivalves suffer at the claws of pesky parasitic crabs, this seems a particularly sweet revenge.
Us humans really like to talk up our skills at farming. And while it’s true that we have domesticated animals and plants to a degree not seen in other life forms, the act of nurturing and harvesting food is actually not really that special, and is broadly observed throughout the animal kingdom. Perhaps the most iconic invertebrate farmers are insects. Leaf-cutter ants, termites, and some beetles have been observed to actively cultivate fungus by gathering plant material to feed it, growing the fungus, protecting the fungus from competition, and then harvesting the fungus to feed themselves and their young. Ants are also known to keep livestock in the form of aphids, which they lovingly protect and cultivate for the sweet nectar they excrete. Such practices are called “high-level food production” because, like human farmers with their seeds and fertilizer, insects have evolved a highly complex symbiosis with their fungus. The fungus has shaped their behavior as much as the ants cultivate the fungus.
Less well understood is the “low-level food production” that may occur more broadly throughout the tree of life. There is less direct evidence of such behavior because it is more indirect and less specialized than high-level food production, but it may be equally advantageous for the cultivator and the cultivated. One study published in 2003 uncovered a simple but powerful relationship between marsh periwinkles of the genus Littoraria and fungus which they cultivate and harvest.
Marsh periwinkles are small and not particularly charismatic creatures. Like many snails, they are grazers with a shell, a fleshy foot and a rough, abrasive organ called a radula which they use like sandpaper to graze on pretty much whatever they can get into. Snails are not known as picky eaters. But researcher Brian Silliman of Brown University and Steven Newell of University of Georgia noticed that these innocuous snails regularly undertake the risky, low reward activity of grazing above the water on the blades of swamp grass, stripping off the surfaces of the blades of grass. The researchers were confused why the snails would expose themselves to predation and the harmful open air for such a low-nutrition food.
They discovered that the snails were investing in the future. By stripping away the protective surface of the swamp grass blades and liberally fertilizing the surface of the grass with their droppings, the periwinkles are ensuring that the swamp grass will be infected with an active and very prolific fungal infection. The fungus, unlike the plant it lives on, is of high nutritional value. The researchers demonstrated the active partnership between the snails and fungus by conducting caged experiments where they showed that snails which grazed on grass but not the resulting fungus did not grow as large as snails which were allowed to return and chow down on the fungus. The fungus loves this deal as well. They grow much more vigorously on grass that is “radulated” (rubbed with the snail’s sandpapery radula) than uninjured grass. The fungus grows even faster if the snails are allowed to deposit their poop next to the wounds. The researchers found that this same relationship applies at 16 salt marshes along 2,000 km of the Eastern Seaboard.
The periwinkles don’t really know what they’re doing. They aren’t actively planting fungus and watching proudly like a human farmer as their crop matures. But over millions of years, the snails have been hard-wired to practice this behavior because it works. Snails that abrade a leaf of swamp grass, poop on the wound and come back later to eat the yummy fungus do a lot better than snails which just stick to the safe way of life below the surface of the water. The fungus loves this relationship too. The only loser is the swamp grass, which the researchers unsurprisingly found grows much more slowly when infected with fungus. But marsh grass is the largest source of biomass in swamp environments, and the snails that partner with fungus are able to more efficiently use this plentiful but low-nutrient food source, to the extent that it is now the dominant way of eating for swamp periwinkles on the East Coast of the US, and probably in a lot more places too. The researchers noted that there are likely far more examples of low-level food production that we simply haven’t noticed.
Since this work was published, other teams have discovered that some damselfish like to farm algae, fiddler crabs encourage the growth of mangrove trees, and even fungus get in on the action of farming bacteria. We love to talk up our “sophisticated” high-level food production techniques, but such relationships probably got started at a similarly low level. Our activities as hunter-gatherers encouraged the growth of certain organisms, we stumbled upon them, ate them, kept doing what we were doing and eventually our behavior developed into something more complex. Next time you see a snail munching its way up a blade of grass, consider to yourself whether it knows exactly what it’s doing. Come back later to see the fruits of its labor.
In undergrad, I felt like my school and internship were training me to be two different types of researcher. At USC, I was majoring in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in Biology. It was essentially two majors in one, with a year of biology, a year of chemistry, a year of organic chem, a year of physics, molecular biology, biochemistry, etc. On top of that, I took courses on international environmental policy and went to Belize to study Mayan environmental history. Meanwhile, I was working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena researching trends in historical rainfall data. I loved both sides of my studies, but felt like neither was exactly hitting the spot of what I would want to spend my career researching. I love marine biology but am not particularly interested in working constantly in the lab, looking for expression of heat shock protein related genes or pouring stuff from one tube into another. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the process of untangling the complex history of rainfall in California, but I yearned to relate this environmental history to the reaction of ecological communities, which was outside the scope of the project.
During my gap year post-USC, I thought long and hard about how I could reconcile these disparate interests. I read a lot, and researched a bunch of competing specialized sub-fields. I realized that paleobiology fit the bill for my interests extremely well. Paleobiologists are considered earth scientists because they take a macro view of the earth as a system through both time and space. They have to understand environmental history to be able to explain the occurrences of organisms over geologic time. I really liked the idea of being able to place modern-day changes in their geologic context. What changes are humans making that are truly unprecedented in the history of life on earth?
But it doesn’t have to be all zoomed out to million-year processes. A growing sub-field known as Conservation Paleobiology (CPB) is focused on quantifying and providing context of how communities operated before humans were around and before the agricultural and industrial revolutions, in order to understand the feasibility of restoration for these communities in this Anthropocene world. Sometimes, this means creating a baseline of environmental health: how did oysters grow and build their reefs before they were harvested and human pollution altered the chemistry of their habitats? I’m personally researching whether giant clams grow faster in the past , or are they reacting in unexpected ways to human pollution? It appears that at least in the Gulf of Aqaba, they may be growing faster in the present day. Such difficult and counterintuitive answers are common in this field.
Sometimes, CPB requires thinking beyond the idea of baselines entirely. We are realizing that ecosystems sometimes have no “delicate balance” as described by some in the environmental community. While ecosystems can be fragile and vulnerable to human influence, their “natural” state is one of change. The question is whether human influence paves over that prior ecological variability and leads to a state change in the normal succession of ecosystems, particularly if those natural ecosystems provide services that are important to human well-being. In a way, the application of paleobiology to conservation requires a system of values. It always sounds great to call for restoring an ecosystem to its prior state before humans. But if that restoration would require even more human intervention than the environmental harms which caused the original damage, is it worth it? These are the kinds of tricky questions I think are necessary to ask, and which conservation paleobiology is uniquely suited to answer.
At the Annual Geological Society of America meeting in Seattle this year, the Paleo Society held the first-ever Conservation Paleobiology session. The room was standing room only the whole time, investigating fossil and modern ecosystems from many possible angles. This field is brand new, and the principles behind it are still being set down, which is very exciting. It’s great to be involved with a field that is fresh, interdisciplinary, and growing rapidly. I look forward to sharing what my research and others find in the future.