The clams that sail the seas on rafts of kelp


The streamlined shells of Gaimardia trapesina. Source: New Zealand Mollusca
Bivalves are not known as champion migrators. While scallops can swim and many types of bivalves can burrow, most bivalves are primarily sessile (non-moving on the ocean bottom). So for many bivalves, the primary method they use to colonize new territories is to release planktotrophic (“plankton-eating”) larvae, which can be carried to new places by currents and feed on other plankton surrounding them. Many bivalves have broad distributions because of their ability to hitchhike on ocean currents when they are microscopic. They don’t even pack a lunch, instead eating whatever other plankton is around them. But once they settle to grow, they are typically fixed in place.

Not all bivalves have a planktotrophic larval stage, though. Larvae of lecithotrophic bivalve species (“yolk-eaters”) have yolk-filled eggs which provide them with a package of nutrition to help them along to adulthood. Others are brooders, meaning that rather than releasing eggs and sperm into the water column to fertilize externally, they instead internally develop the embryos of their young to release to the local area when they are more fully developed. This strategy has some benefits. Brooders invest more energy into the success of their offspring and therefore may exhibit a higher survival rate than other bivalves that release their young as plankton to be carried by the sea-winds. This is analogous to the benefits that K-strategist vertebrate animals like elephants have compared to r-strategist mice: each baby is more work, and more risky, but is more likely to survive to carry your genes to the next generation.

Brooding is particularly useful at high latitudes, where the supply of phytoplankton that is the staple food of most planktrophic bivalve larvae is seasonal and may limit their ability to survive in large numbers. But most of these brooding bivalves stay comparatively local compared to their planktonic brethren. Their gene flow is lower on average as a result, with greater diversity in genetic makeup between populations of different regions. And generally, their species ranges are more constricted as a result of their limited ability to distribute themselves.

A bunch of G. trapesina attached to kelp. Notice the hitchhiking clams have in turn had hitchhiking barnacles attach to them. Freeloaders on freeloaders! Source: Eleonora Puccinelli

But some brooding bivalves have developed a tool to have it all: they nurture their young and colonize new territories by sailing the seas using kelp rafts. The clam Gaimardia trapesina has evolved to attach itself to giant kelp using long, stringy, elastic byssal threads and a sticky foot which helps it hold on for dear life. The kelp floats with the help of gas-filled pneumatocysts, and grows in the surge zone where it often is ripped apart or dislodged by the waves to be carried away by the tides and currents. This means that if the clam can persist through that wave-tossed interval to make it into the current, it can be carried far away. Though they are brooders, they are distributed across a broad circumpolar swathe of the Southern Ocean through the help of their their rafting ability. They nurture their embryos on specialized filaments in their bodies and release them to coat the surfaces of their small floating kelp worlds. The Southern Ocean is continuously swirling around the pole due to the dominance of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which serves as a constant conveyor belt transporting G. trapesina across the southern seas. So while G. trapesina live packed in on small rafts, they can travel to faraway coastlines using this skill.

The broad circumpolar distribution of G. trapesina. Source: Sealifebase

The biology of G. trapesina was described in greater detail in a recent paper from a team of South African researchers led by Dr. Eleonora Puccinelli, who found that the clams have evolved to not bite the hands (kelp blades?) that feed them. Tests of the isotopic composition of the clams’ tissue shows that most of their diet is made up of detritus (loose suspended particles of organic matter) rather than kelp. If the clams ate the kelp, they would be destroying their rafts, but they are gifted with a continuous supply of new food floating by as they sail from coast to coast across the Antarctic and South American shores. But they can’t be picky when they’re floating in the open sea, and instead eat whatever decaying matter they encounter.

Falkland Islands stamp featuring G. trapesina. Source.

The clams are small, around 1 cm in size, to reduce drag and allow for greater populations to share the same limited space of kelp. Their long, thin byssal threads regrow quickly if they are torn, which is a useful skill when their home is constantly being torn by waves and scavengers. Unlike other bivalves, their shells are thin and fragile and they do not really “clam up” their shells when handled. They prioritize most of their energy into reproduction and staying stuck to their rafts, and surrender to the predators that may eat them. There are many species that rely on G. trapesina as a food source at sea, particularly traveling seabirds, which descend to pick them off of kelp floating far from land. In that way, these sailing clams serve as an important piece of the food chain in the southernmost seas of our planet, providing an energy source for birds during their migrations to and from the shores of the Southern continents.


Hard shells aren’t actually that hard to make (yet)

One of the Antarctic bivalve species featured in this study. Source

Like all organisms, bivalves have a limited budget governing all aspects of their metabolism. If they put more energy into feeding (filtering the water), they can bring in a bit more food and therefore fuel more growth, but sucking in water takes energy as well, particularly if there isn’t enough food to be filtered out. Bivalves also periodically have to grow gonadal material and eggs for reproduction, expand their body tissue (somatic growth) and of course, grow their shells (made of of a mineral called carbonate). All of these expenditures are items in a budget determined by the amount of energy the bivalve can bring in, as well as how efficiently they can digest and metabolize that energy.

If a bivalve is placed under stress, their scope for growth (the max amount of size increase per unit time) will be decreased. Because they’re cold-blooded, bivalves are limited by the temperature of their environment. If temperatures are low, they simply can’t sustain the chemical reactions required for life at the same rate that endotherms like us can. They also may have to shut their shells and stop feeding if they’re exposed by the tide, or are tossed around by a violent storm, or attacked by predators or toxins from the algae that they feed on.

When their budget is lower, they have to make painful cuts, much like a company lays off employees if their revenues are lower. The question is which biological processes get cut, and when? My first chapter (submitted and in review) has settled temperature being the primary control on seasonal shell growth. Bivalves at high latitudes undergo annual winter shutdowns in growth, which create the growth bands I use to figure out their age, growth rate, etc. We’d be a lot closer to accurately predicting when bivalves suffer from “growth shutdowns” if we had hard numbers on how much energy they actually invest in their shells. A new study from a team led by Sue-Ann Watson of James Cook University attempts to do just that.

Diagram relating the growth bands of Antarctic soft-shelled clam with a chart showing the widths of those bands. Source

Collecting a database of widths for the annual growth rings of bivalve and gastropod (snail) species from many latitudes, Watson and her team were able to get a global view of how fast different molluscs grow from the equator to the poles. Because the unit cost of creating carbonate is determined by well-understood chemistry, they were able to create an equation which would determine the exact number of Joules of energy used for every bivalve to grow their shells.

They still needed a total energy budget for each species, in order to the percent of the energy budget that each bivalve was investing in their shells. They drew on a previous paper which had calculated the standard metabolic rates for each species by carefully measuring their oxygen consumption. We could do the same for you if you sat in a sealed box for an extended period of time while we measured the exact amount of oxygen going in and CO2 going out. Dividing the amount of energy needed to grow the shell by the total amount of energy used in the organism’s metabolism would give us a percent of total energy that the bivalve dedicates to adding growth layers to its shell.

That number is…not very large. None of the bivalves or gastropods they looked at put more than 10% of their energy into shell growth, and bivalves were the lowest, with less than 4% of their energy going into their shell. Low-latitude (more equatorward) bivalves have the easiest time, putting less than 1% of their energy into growth but getting way more payoff for that small expenditure. High-latitude polar bivalves have to work harder, because the lower temperatures they experience mean the reactions needed to create their shells are more expensive. In addition, most of that energy is going into the protein-based “scaffolding” that is used to make the shell, rather than the crystals of carbonate themselves. Organisms right now don’t have to put a whole lot of effort into making their protective shells, which could explain why so many organisms use shells for protection. That is good, because if shells were  already breaking the bank when it came to the bivalves’ growth budget, they wouldn’t have a lot of room to invest more energy in the face of climate change. Unfortunately, as the authors note, these budgets may need to change in the face of climate change, particularly for bivalves at the poles. As the oceans grow more acidic due to human CO2 emissions, growing their shells will start to take up more of their energy, which is currently not a major part of their budget.

A cold-water ecosystem dominated by Antarctic scallops. Source

Right now, the cold waters of the poles are refuges for organisms that don’t deal well with shell crushing predators. As polar regions warm, such predators will begin to colonize these unfamiliar waters. Polar bivalves may encounter the double whammy of needing to spend more energy to make the same amount of shell, but also find that it is no longer enough to protect them from predators that easily crack open their protective coverings.

I found this study to be an elegant and thoughtful attempt to fill in a gap in our current understanding of how organisms grow and how energy budgets are influenced by environmental variables like temperature. I instantly downloaded the paper because it answered a question that has long been on my mind. Maybe can sneak its way into my manuscript during the review process!