A coral, a worm and some clams walk into a bar…

The tree of life is often portrayed as a neatly branching structure, with each division point cleanly delineated and separated from its neighbors. The truth is that the various twigs of the tree of life often overlap and become tangled in a process we call symbiosis. I’ve talked about symbiosis before on this blog, which falls along a spectrum of wholesomeness. At one end we have mutualism, a partnership where both organisms benefit and achieve more than the sum of their parts. The other extreme is parasitism, when one organism benefits at the expense of the other. Between the two, there is a broad gray area including commensalism, when one organism’s presence doesn’t necessarily cost or benefit the other in any way. The tree of life is crowded and unpruned, and so sometimes the twigs might wrap around each other quietly and without much fuss. We live on a small planet, and have had to get used to living in uncomfortable intimacy with all sorts of creatures, such as the mites that are living on your eyelashes right now.

But things start to get really weird and tangled when the tree of life loops over on itself twice, or three times, or more. “Three-way” symbioses are surprisingly common, and the more you look for them, the more you realize that the tree of life is more of a knot than anything else.

A worm burrow in a coral, with clams included! Note the little “lateral pores” that serve as windows!

A recent paper from researchers in Bremen (Germany) and Saudi Arabia looked at such a three-way symbiosis between a coral, a worm and bivalves found off of Tanzania in East Africa. The relationship between solitary corals (Heteropsammia cochlea and Heterocyathus aequicostatus), a sipunculan worm (Aspidosiphon muelleri muelleri) and the clam Jousseaumiella, is a complex triangle of dependencies that had previously been noticed by other researchers, but never investigated at great depth. The worm lives with multiple tiny clams attached, all inside of a small solitary coral the size of a dime (1 cm long). Is the coral a willing host for this crowded boarding house, or has it been parasitized? Does the worm gain anything from the clams? The researchers sought to find out.

Part of the reason I enjoyed reading this study so much was that it had to take a narrative structure to describe the evolutionary ménage à trois of its focus. So much of modern science has moved away from anecdote to hard data, and while there is plenty of that to find in the study, it turns out that a lot of the study of symbiosis is storytelling. We need to know the setting and the characters.

The corals are small and would be easy to mistake for small bits of reef rubble if you weren’t looking for them!

In this case, the main characters are small solitary corals living in the tropical reefs of the Indo-Pacific. We denote them as solitary to distinguish them from their giant colony-forming compatriots that construct the coral reefs currently threatened by climate change and pollution. But like those giant reef-builders, these solitary corals get much of their food from sunlight through a mutualistic partnership with algae called Symbiodinium. The algae provide the host with sugars and other photosynthetic products, and the hosts give them nutrients and a safe cozy home in their tissue.

You might be thinking, “Wait! Dan just said this was a three-way partnership between a coral, a worm and some clams. So this is actually a four-way partnership between corals, worms, clams and algae?” You’d be exactly right. And I’m happy to say that the plot of this sordid story is about to thicken even further.

The side of the coral. See the little pores?

The Aspidosiphon worm is found in a spiral-shaped burrow inside of the skeleton of the coral. It is a pretty cozy home, with walls made of calcium carbonate by the coral, with breathing holes in the sides to allow the worm to breathe and release waste. The researchers wanted to know more about the structure of the burrow. Was it dug out by the worm using acid or an abrasive motion, like some clams use to dig into coral? So the researchers essentially gave the coral a CT scan to see its 3D internal structure. Inside they found growth features suggesting the coral grew around the worm, as if intentionally providing it a home.

Cross-sectional CT scans of the coral skeleton. In figure D, you can see the silouette of the chambers of the snail shell where the worm made its first home!

Even more crazily, they found evidence that the worm had first settled inside an empty snail shell, like a hermit crab! The coral probably settled on a snail shell as a larva, and grew to engulf the whole snail shell, leaving growing space for the worm inside, with windows and all! So to review, this is now a five-way symbiosis between a dead snail, a worm that moved into its empty shell, the coral (powered by algae) that grew around it and encased the snail shell within its skeleton, and we haven’t even gotten to the clams. How many creatures are hiding stacked in this trench coat? Please bear with me as I explain!

An SEM image of Jousseaumiella. These are less than 1 mm long! Pinhead sized!

What are the clams doing in this picture? Jousseaumiella is part of a family of clams called Galeommatidae, which we previously mentioned on this blog in the context of some bivalves found growing in the gills of unfortunate sand crabs. Many members of the Galeommatidae family are parasitic or commensal with other marine organisms. In this case, Jousseaumiella are tiny flat-bodied clams less than 1 mm long, found attached to the body of the worm, squeezed inside the burrow in the coral’s skeleton. It feeds on the worm’s waste and potentially food particles coming through the pores in the sides of the burrow. Not the most dignified existence, but a more mobile home means more opportunities to eat a varied diet similar to that that the worm and coral are seeking out, and the clam also gets protection from predation tucked inside the coral. It is unclear if it benefits the worm directly to have clams attached to it.

A time lapse of the coral+worm moving from the paper’s supplement! It would be handy to navigate to greener pastures, if it became too muddy in a certain place!

It is, however, clear how living inside a coral would be a pretty good deal for the worm, which gets a stable, protective suit of carbonate armor to protect it from predators, and grows to fit it as it gets larger. They are normally found inside of rocks, shells and other hard inanimate objects, but having a living home is a cool upgrade. What is the coral getting out of the deal? The researchers note that the corals are often found in the crevices between other large reef-building corals, in areas of the reef that receive high supplies of nutrients and turbidity (dirt that blocks out light). These sorts of environments aren’t necessarily friendly places for a coral to be, since they reduce the light and therefore the food that the coral can receive from photosynthesis. These crevices also have a lot of variability in other conditions like temperature and water flow. But because the coral has hitched a ride on the back of a worm, it can actually move in the sediment to react to changing conditions and avoid being buried by piles of sediment floating by! The worm can also act as a sort of anchor preventing the worm from sinking in the sediment underneath, which would be a big hazard for the small, stubby coral on its own. The coral seems to go to great pains to make its partner comfortable, not growing its skeleton to cover the pore windows to the outside. The researchers note that as coral reefs worldwide are subject to increasing human-made pollution and climate change, it would be interesting to research whether this complex three-(five?) way symbiosis provides the various participants with an advantage compared to other corals.

So like any good story, this symbiosis features complex, growing characters, a dynamic setting, and still plenty of mystery demanding a sequel! To that end, there are lots of other great three-way symbioses to investigate. Snails which farm fungus that parasitizes plants. Bryozoans living on snail shells that have a hermit crab inside. Gobies serving as lookouts at the entrances of burrows built by shrimp, with a crab freeloader along for good measure. Algae and bacteria teaming up to attack mussels. The list keeps going! I could see this becoming quite a franchise!

The Mystery of the Giant Clams of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean

I have always been fascinated by scientific discoveries that are hanging right in front of our noses. Cryptic species are one such surprise. Sometimes, researchers using genetic sequencing are surprised to discover that a group of animals that all look the same from the outside are actually reproductively isolated from each other; separate twigs on the tree of life. This surprise has happened over and over in the history of natural science.

It turns out such puzzles are frequent among the giant clams. These unusual bivalves are specialists in coral reef environments, growing to large size with the help of symbiotic algae that create sugars through photosynthesis. Within the genus Tridacna there are ~10 accepted species which vary in size, shape, color and mode of life.

Tridacna squamosina (right) sitting next to the small giant clam T. maxima (left) on the Israeli Red Sea coast

I specialize in the three species known (so far) from the Red Sea, including the small giant clam Tridacna maxima and the fluted giant clam T. squamosa, which are both found worldwide, all the way from the Red Sea to down past the equator along the Great Barrier Reef. The third local species, T. squamosina is more unusual, so far being only known from the Red Sea (an endemic species). T. squamosina is an example of a cryptic species, having previously been assumed to be a local variant of T. squamosa. It looks pretty similar, with long scutes (flap-like appendages) protruding from its shell, thought to help stabilize it on the flat bottom of loose coral rubble. But unlike T. squamosa, T. squamosina lives exclusively at the top of the reef in the shallowest waters closest to the sun. It has a very angular, zig-zag pattern in its plications (the wavy shapes at the edge of the shell) and a characteristic pair of green stripes where the soft tissue meets the edges of the shell. The soft tissue is covered with warty protuberances.

Pictures of details of T. squamosina from Richter et al. 2008

It was only first described in detail in the early 2000s, when an international team of researchers figured out using genetic sequencing that it was a distinct species and named it T. costata. They noted that in their surveys all around the shores of the Red Sea, they only found 13 live specimens, making it an extremely rare and possibly endangered species. Fossil specimens on local reefs appeared to be much more common, suggesting it had a much larger population in the past. Then in 2011, another team at the Natural History Museum in Vienna discovered a shell of one had been forgotten in its collection for over 100 years. Rudolf Sturany, the researcher on the 1895 research cruise who had originally collected the clam, had called it T. squamosina.

The T. squamosina shell in the collection of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna (from Huber and Eschner, 2011)

In taxonomy (the science of naming and classifying organisms), the first team to name the species wins, so the name T. costata was synonymized (retired) in favor of the earlier name T. squamosina, which became the name of record. It must be annoying to spend so much time working to name a species and then discover you had been scooped over a century before! But such is science.

A mystery clam thought to be T. squamosina, later identified as T. elongatissima found off of Mozambique by iNaturalist user bewambay

The strange part was that there were some murmurs over the last few years that T. squamosina was not only found in the Red Sea, but also had been seen along the coast of Africa as far south as Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar. Divers and snorkelers had taken pictures of a giant clam that did indeed look strangely like T. squamosina, with a zigzag shell opening and green stripes at the edge of its tissue. But some aspects of these individuals seemed off. In the Red Sea, T. squamosina lives freely, not embedded in the coral as these pictures showed, and the geometry of the angles of the shell seemed a bit different. It also would be difficult for T. squamosina to be connected in population from the Red Sea all the way South to Mozambique, as there are natural barriers which would prevent its planktonic larvae from riding currents to intermix between the two regions. When populations are separated by a barrier, the flow of genes between them is cut off and evolution begins to separate the populations from each other until they are separate species, a process called allopatric speciation.

A large specimen of T. elongatissima observed by iNaturalist user dawngoebbels off of Kenya

I figured that someday, researchers would collect tissue samples from these mystery clams to settle whether they were actually T. squamosina or something else. And this year, a team did just that, traveling along the coast of Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya and other places, collecting samples of tissue to compare how all the different clams they saw were related in a family tree. They genetically sequenced these “clamples” and in the process, found that the mystery clams were a new cryptic species, which they called T. elongatissima!

Shells of T. elongatissima from the Fauvelot et al. 2020 paper
For comparison, a shell of T. squamosina collected off of Sinai, Egypt. You can see why they’re easy to mix up!

T. elongatissima closely resembles T. squamosina, and they are sister species on the bivalve family tree. It’s hard to tell them apart without training. Even a professional would probably mix some of them up if they were all placed sitting next to each other. The major differences appear to relate to shell shape, with T. elongatissima having a less symmetrical shell than T. squamosina, and a bigger opening at the rear hinge for a foot to poke through. The symmetrical shell and closing of the foot opening may represent changes that T. squamosina took on to adapt to be able to sit freely on the bottom, rather than embedding in the coral like T. elongatissima seems to prefer. If you’ve read this far, you may be thinking “Who cares? A clam’s a clam and these look practically the same. Aren’t you just splitting clams at this point?” At the end of the day, a species is a man-made concept; an organizing tool for use by us humans. Species are the characters in our reconstruction of the history of the world. What can we learn about the world by having identified this species T. elongatissima?

A giant clam family tree! Notice T. squamosina and T. elongatissima right next to each other.

The researchers behind the new paper discuss that based on statistical analyses of the genetic differences between the species, the most recent common ancestor for T. elongatissima and T. squamosina probably lived more than 1.4 million years ago! Some researchers have previously suggested that T. squamosina probably began its development as a separate species due to geographic isolation by low sea level, caused by repeated glaciations. With so much water trapped as ice on land during this period, the narrow Strait of Bab al Mandab, currently the gateway to the Red Sea, became a land barrier as sea level fell (kind of like opposite of the Bering Sea land bridge that formed allowing humans to migrate to the Americas). Ancestral clams trapped on the Northern end of this barrier were proposed to have evolved to become the rare T. squamosina.

This has occurred with a variety of species that became Red Sea endemics (meaning they are unique species that evolved in the Red Sea and are found nowhere else), including a unique crown of thorns starfish. The issue is that during this time of low sea level, the Red Sea went through periods where it was a rather unfriendly place for clams to live. All sorts of creatures went extinct in the period when the sea was repeatedly cut off, because the water became extremely salty, along with other unfriendly changes. So it’s unlikely T. squamosina would be present for us to see today if it only lived in the Red Sea throughout the entire length of time.

A map from Fauvelot et al. 2020 showing the distributions of different giant clams the researchers identified along the coasts of Africa and the Red Sea. Notice the bright red dots representing T. squamosina, only found in the Red Sea, while green dots represent T. elongatissima. Notice how the currents (arrows) seem to meet and then go offshore from Kenya. More on that in the next paragraph.

The researchers of this new paper propose that T. squamosina was more likely to have initially branched off due to the barrier of the Horn of Africa. The seas off of Kenya and Somalia harbor a meeting of southward and northward currents which then group and head offshore, away from the reefs that giant clam larvae are trying to get to. So any tiny floating planktonic clam larvae would experience a strong “headwind” preventing them from crossing that point. It would also mean that during times that the Red Sea was not a happy place to be a clam, T. squamosina may have found refuge on the coasts of places like Eritrea, Oman and possibly even as far as Pakistan. During times when sea levels rose and Red Sea conditions became friendlier, it recolonized the area.

As far as we know, the Red Sea is the only place T. squamosina is now found, but it may well be present elsewhere like Yemen or Oman. If T. squamosina was found in other regions, it would be tremendously important for its conservation. Right now, the species is thought to be extremely rare, with a very small native range. If it inhabited a broader area, that would mean more reservoirs of genetic diversity. This would reduce the odds that it will go extinct as reefs are put under stress from climate change, pollution and overharvesting. To survive as a species, it helps to not put all your eggs in one basket. If you’re only found in one small place, it increases the chances that a disaster (like climate change) will wipe you out.

The only way we will know for sure is to visit reefs in understudied places like Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, Eritrea and Somalia, to understand the richness of the giant clams present. These areas are understudied for various reasons: lack of research funding for non-Western researchers, lack of interest from the scientific community too focused on familiar places, and geopolitical situations that make it difficult to conduct research. But I hope someday to collaborate with people in these countries to better understand the giant clams present in such understudied regions of the globe. It is virtually certain that there are more species of giant clams, both alive and as fossils, waiting to be discovered.