What good is a clam?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A shell midden in Argentina. Photo from Mikel Zubimendi, Wikipedia
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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!

 

Mystery of the “spurting” mussels

If you’ve read any of my posts, you should realize by now that clams are pretty weird. Some catch live prey. Some have algae in their bodies that they “farm” for food. Some can bore into hard rock. Some sail the seas on rafts of kelp. Clams live in a competitive world and have had hundreds of millions of years of time to evolve to try out all sorts of weird, unlikely ways of life.

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U. crassus in a Slovenian river (Alexander Mrkvicka)

The thick shelled river mussel (Unio crassus) is known from many rivers and streams of Central Europe. As this is a very well-studied region of the world, many generations of academics have noted an unusual, seemingly inexplicable behavior undertaken by these mussels at certain times of year.

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U. crassus propped up on its foot (UCforLife)

Using its muscular foot, U. crassus pulls itself to the edges of the streams and rivers it lives in until it is partially exposed to air. It orients itself at a right angle with the surface of the stream with its siphons (two little snorkels coming out of the shell) facing out towards the water. Like all bivalves, U. crassus can act as a bellows by opening and closing its shell to pull in and push out water through those siphons. It has one siphon above the water and one below, and it proceeds to suck in water and spray it into the center of the stream using the power of its suction. The water can travel over a meter away and they continue this spurting about once a minute, sometimes for hours.

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Squirting water into the stream! (Vicentini 2005)

Needless to say, this is a very strange and unlikely behavior to observe in a mussel. It is exposing itself to potential dessication or suffocation from exposure to air. It is vulnerable to predation from terrestrial mammals and birds. There has to be a very powerful benefit from this behavior to outweigh those risks. And why squirt water into the air?

Some researchers proposed that the mussels were traveling to shore to harvest from the more plentiful food particles deposited there. But why would they face their siphons away from the shore then? Other workers suggested that it was a way to reduce heat stress through evaporation, though that also seems unlikely, considering the water is warmest in the shallows. The question persisted for decades in the minds of curious malacologists.

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Top-down view of spurting behavior (Vicentini 2005)

In 2005, Heinrich Vicentini of the Swiss Bureau for Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology decided to try settle the question of why these mussels spurt. He observed several dozen of the mussels crawl to the edge of the water and diligently begin squirting into the streams. In the name of science, he put himself in the path of these squirts, caught the water and used a hand lens to observe that the squirted water was full of mussel larvae (glochidia).

Lifecyle of U. crassus (Rita Larje via UCforLife)

U. crassus falls in the order Unionida, a group of freshwater mussels distinguished by a very unusual method of reproduction. They are parasites! Because they can’t swim well enough to colonize upstream against the current, they need to rely on fish to hitch a ride. Some have evolved elaborate lures to convince fish to take a bite, then allowing them to release their larvae, which attach to the fish’s gills like binder clips and ride all the way upstream. Once they have reached their destination, they detach and grow up into more conventional burrowing mussels. It’s a weird, creepy and wonderfully brilliant strategy that enabled the mussels to invade the inland rivers which would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

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Loach (type of freshwater fish) gills with unionid larvae attached (UCforLife)

The mussels appear to be spurting out not only water, but their babies. They gain a couple of advantages from this. For one, their larvae can distribute further than would be possible from the bottom of the creek. Instead, they are released at the center of the surface of the stream, where they can be carried for a much longer distance by the current before they settle at the bottom. In addition, the splash of water on the surface may mimic the behavior of insects and other fish food falling in the water. A curious minnow might venture to investigate the source of the splash, where it would promptly breathe in a cloud of larvae that get stuck on its gills. A pretty rude surprise, but a brilliant trick to give the baby mussels the best chance of surviving.

So again, clams prove themselves to be far more clever and interesting than they might initially seem. U. crassus and other members of the Unionida are an ancient and globally distributed lineage which have evolved all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to maintain their river lifestyle. Unfortunately, rivers are some of the most widely damaged environments in the world. A majority of freshwater mussel species worldwide including U. crassus are endangered by habitat loss, overharvesting and pollution. But more research into their unusual biology can help us understand ways we can enhance their conservation, with the hope of providing more habitat for them to recover populations in the future. New projects in Sweden and other countries aim to recover habitat for their larvae to settle along 300 km of rivers, and research the fish species which their larvae prefer to hitch a ride on. With more work, we can hopefully ensure that the streams of Europe will harbor little mini super-soakers for millennia to come.

The clams that sail the seas on rafts of kelp

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Killer Clams

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Some shells of the carnivorous genus Cardiomya. Notice the protuberance off one side, making space for the overdeveloped siphon they use to capture prey (Machado et al. 2016)

You might think of clams as rather pacifistic creatures. Most of them are; the majority of bivalves are filter-feeding organisms that suck in seawater and eat the yummy stuff being carried by the currents. This mostly means phytoplankton, tiny single-celled photosynthetic plankton which make up most of the biomass in the world’s oceans. Most bivalves could be considered exclusively herbivorous, but as I’ve learned happens throughout evolutionary biology, there are exceptions to every rule. We already talked about parasitic bivalves that have evolved to hitch a ride on other hapless marine animals. But there is an even more sinister lineage of bivalves waiting in the sediment: yes, I’m talking about killer clams.

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View of the oversized siphon (Machado et al. 2016)

Carnivory in bivalves has evolved multiple times, but the majority of known carnivorous bivalves fall within an order called the Anomalodesmata. Within that order, two families of clams called the Poromyidae and Cuspariidae have a surprising number of species which are known to eat multicellular prey.

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Evil clams are also the star of my favorite Spongebob episode

Now, you can rest easy because there are no clams that eat people. You’re safe from the Class Bivalvia, as far as we know. But if you were a small crustacean like a copepod, isopod or ostracod, you would be quite concerned about the possibility of being eaten by a poromyid clam in certain regions of the world. These clams lie in wait in the sediment like a sarlacc, with sensory tentacles feeling for passing prey and a large, overdeveloped siphon ready to suck up or engulf their helpless targets.

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Until we catch the feeding behavior of poromyids on video, these whimsical artist’s depictions will have to do (Morton 1981).

Because they spend their lives under the sediment, these clams aren’t very well studied, and the first video of them alive was only taken in recent years. In addition, many of these killer clams live in deeper water, where their murderous lifestyle provides an advantage because food supplies can be much more sparse than in the sun-drenched shallow coastal zone. Much like the venus flytrap and carnivorous plants have arisen in response to the low nutrient supply of boggy swamp environments, the ability to eat alternative prey is valuable to the killer clams in all sorts of unconventional environments.

The siphon which these clams use to suck up their prey is a repurposed organ. In most other bivalves, the siphon is usually a snorkel-like organ which enables the clam to safely remain buried deep in the sediment and still breathe in oxgyen and food-rich water from open water above. But for the poromyids, the siphon is instead a weapon which can be used like a vaccum cleaner hose, or even be enlarged to engulf hapless prey. The poromyids have also evolved to have a much more complex, muscular stomach than any other bivalves. It takes a lot more energy to digest multicellular food, while most other bivalves simply just feed from the single-celled food they catch on their gills, expelling the other un-needed junk as “pseudofeces.”

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Dilemma, another strange carnivorous bivalve which eats marine isopods (pill bugs), found from deep waters off the the Florida Keys, Vanuatu and New Zealand (Leal 2008)

Hopefully soon we will have video of this predatory activity in action. But until then, you can imagine that somewhere on earth, tiny copepods foraging on the surface of the sediment pass by a strange field of squishy tentacles. Suddenly, out of nowhere a hellish giant vacuum hose appears in view and sucks them in like Jonah and the whale. Then it’s just darkness and stomach acid. What a way to go!

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Lyonsiella going after a doomed copepod (Morton 1984).

When a clam gets an offer it can’t refuse

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Tridacna maxima in Eilat, Israel

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.

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Top left: normal mussel. Top right: heavily infected L-shaped shell opening. Bottom: view of an algae-infected mussel, including close up of pearls. From Zuykov et al. 2018

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.

Lessons of the Condors

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Condor 606 was born in Big Sur and regularly flies back and forth between there and Pinnacles.

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.

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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.

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Turkey vulture just checking if we were feeling ok as we sat in the shade.

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.

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This condor was very far away, gracefully circling the canyon.

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.

 

Revenge of the Clams

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Lampsilis showing off its convincing fish-like lure. Photo: Chris Barnhart, Missouri State.

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.

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Very tiny Mytilus edulis living in the gills of a crab (Poulter et al, 2017)
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The tiny 2.5 mm long Mimichlamys varia, living on the leg of a crab (Albano and Favero, 2011)

 

 

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.

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Top: Kurtiella attached among the eggs of the mole crab. Bottom: aberrant Kurtiella living within the tissue of the crab (Bhaduri et al, 2018)

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.

 

 

 

 

The Snails that Farm

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Littoraria grazing on Spartina marsh grass. (source)

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. 

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The marsh periwinkle Littoraria irrorata (source)

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.

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Close-up of a snail’s radula (source)

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.

 

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A typical snail farm, complete with liberally applied fertilizer. Yum.

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.