Thoughts of a clam

To us active, dynamic mammals, the humble clam can appear positively…inanimate. Their nervous system is decentralized relative to ours, lacking any sort of brain, and to the untrained eye, it can appear that their only discernible reaction to the outside world is opening or closing. Open = happy, closed = not happy; end of story, right? Some vegans even argue that the clams are so nonsentient that it is okay to eat them and think of them as having no more agency than a vegetable!

You might already have predicted I intend to tell you about just how animate and sentient clams can be. But let’s start out by describing the nuts and bolts of their nervous system. As with many invertebrates, their nervous system is distributed throughout their body as a system of ganglia. Ganglia are clumps of nerve cells which may have local specialization, and transmit messages within neurons using electrical potentials. At the connection between cells (called a synapse), neurotransmitters are used to pass signals to the next cell. Researchers have found that bivalves use “histamine‐, octopamine‐, gamma‐aminobutyric acid‐ (GABA)…like immunoreactivity” in their central and peripheral nervous systems, much like us vertebrates do, and other studies have even found that the response to serotonin and dopamine is localized in nervous tissue linked to different organ systems.

Nerve cells (bright green) highlighted in a larval oyster with fluorescent dye (from Yurchenko et al 2018)

These systems of chemical nerve transmission are truly ancient, likely dating back to the formation of complex animal body plans in the earliest Cambrian. Researchers have great interest in studying these nervous and hormonal signaling systems in mollusks because they can shed light on the relative flexibility and limitations of these systems throughout the animal tree of life. Characterizing these systems can also allow us to understand the mechanisms that bivalves and other animals use to react to environmental stimuli.

Electron microscope view of gill cilia, zoomed in 1000x (from Dan Hornbach)

Like humans, bivalves spend a lot of time and effort eating. Most bivalves eat by filtering food from passing water with tiny cilia on their gills. These cilia work to capture food particles and also act as a miniature rowing team moving water along the gill surface. The bivalve needs a way to control this ciliar activity, and researchers found they could directly control the speed at which oysters move their cilia by dosing them with serotonin and dopamine, which respectively increased and decreased activity.

Bivalves also work very hard to make babies. Most bivalves reproduce by releasing sperm and eggs to fertilize externally in the water column. To maximize their chances to find a mate, they typically save up their reproductive cells in gonads for multiple months and release them in a coordinated mass spawning event. It appears that this process is controlled by hormonal releases of dopamine and serotonin. Researchers have determined that serotonin concentrations vary through the year, with mussels in New England using it to regulate a seasonal cycle of feeding in summer, followed storing of that energy for winter. During the winter when food is less available, they use that stored energy to bulk up their gonads in time for reproductive release in spring months, when their larvae have plentiful access to food and oxygen, ensuring them the best chance of survival. In recent decades, aquaculturists have learned to use serotonin injections to induce spawning in cultured clams, to ensure they will have a harvest ready at a certain time of year.

So bivalves are very sensitive to the seasons. How about shorter term sources of excitement? You might have observed this yourself through the clam’s most iconic activity: opening and closing its shell. Clams close their shells with powerful adductor muscles which pull the two valves together. A springy ligament at the hinge pulls the shell open when the muscles relax. Just like us, the clam needs to use nerve cells to signal the muscle to do its thing. In addition, two different sets of ganglia act to control the foot that some bivalves can extend to dig into sand, with one ganglion acting to extend the foot and the other causing it to contract. While clams don’t have a centralized brain with specialized regions for different uses like we have, this represents a sort of specialization of neural systems with a similar result.

Clam licking salt - Imgur
This iconic gif is often shared along with the claim it shows a clam “licking” salt. It is actually using its foot to search for a place to dig. The salt was not needed.

When a certain neuron is used repeatedly, it can form a cellular memory allowing the organism to acclamate (ugh sorry) and moderate its response to a particular stimulus over time. Giant clams, for example, close their shells when their simple eyes detect a shadow overhead. This behavior can protect them from predation. When I conducted some of my PhD research, sampling body fluid of aquarium and wild giant clams with a syringe, I noticed that captive clams didn’t close up in response to my shadow overhead, while wild clams required me to sneak up and wedge their shells open with a wooden block to do my work. I suspected that after exposure to frequent feedings and water changes by aquarists, the clam had “learned” that there was no reason to expend energy closing its shell. Meanwhile, in the process of proving that our sampling technique was not harmful to the animal, I discovered that clams which detected my shadow would quickly reopen within seconds when I hid from them, while those that were stuck by a syringe would stay closed for minutes before opening and beginning to feed again. Makes sense!

Other researchers noticed this phenomenon as well. One group found that giant clams repeatedly exposed to shadows of different sizes, shell tapping and even directly touching its soft tissue began to habituate (become accustomed) to the stress, opening more quickly and staying open longer each time the stimulus occurred. Even more interestingly, they did not transfer that habituation between stress types; for example, the clams that saw a shadow again and again would still react strongly to a different stress like tapping its shell. This suggests the animal can distinguish between different threats along a spectrum of seriousness, with touching of tissue (similar to a fish pecking at its flesh) being the most serious threat with the most dramatic response.

Another study determined that larger giant clams stayed closed longer than smaller ones in response to the same threat. They proposed this was related to the greater risk large clams face as they have more tissue area vulnerable to attack. While the clams might not have made a “conscious” decision in the way we do as thinking creatures, they were able to place their individual risk in context and vary their response. This ability to tailor a response to different risk levels is a sign of surprisingly complex neurology at work.

Inside the Scallop
Close up of the eyes of a scallop. Each is a tiny crystalline parabolic mirror (photo by Matthew Krummins on Wikipedia)

Scallops show some of the most complex bivalve behaviors. This relates back to their unique adaptations, including simple eyes that can resolve shapes and the ability to swim away from danger. Scallops have been found to discern between predator types by sight alone, to the extent that they did not initially recognize an invasive new predatory seastar as a threat. When swimming, they are capable of using this vision to navigate to places where they can hide, such as seagrass beds. It would be very interesting to compare the behavior of scallops in marine protected areas to those that can be freely harvested. Do they vary their behavior in response?

I hope I’ve made clear that while clams are not exactly intellectual powerhouses, their behavior is much more complicated than simply sucking up water and opening or closing their shells. Like us, they inhabit a complex environment that requires a multitude of responses. Their nervous systems have evolved to allow them to survive and adopt nuanced behaviors which they can vary on the fly, and which us “higher” animals are only just beginning to comprehend.

The boring giant clam is anything but.

Tridacna crocea, bored into a coral head on a reef in Palau

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.


Piddocks in next to holes that they made in solid rock. Source: Aphotomarine


Shipworm embedded in wood. Source: Michigan Science Art via Animal Diversity Web

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.


Byssal opening of T. crocea with the foot retracted. Source: NickB on Southwest Florida Marine Aquarium Society

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.

Using a wedge to keep open a Tridacna shell in my Red Sea work. We took a small blood sample with permission of local authorities. This caused no lasting effects to the clams.

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.

Diagram from Hill et al., 2018 showing their experimental design.

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!

Footage of the pH- sensitive foil, with darker areas corresponding to lower pH. The areas of low pH (high acidity) correspond exactly to the “footprint” of the clam!

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.

Weird Clam Profile: The Heart Cockles

Corculum cardissa (from Wikipedia)

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.

Two heart cockles embedded in the top of a Porites coral. Source: Reefbuilders
A particularly green heart cockle from Singapore. Source: orientexpress on iNaturalist

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.

The dark circles in these microscope images are Symbiodinium. The top is a view of giant clam body tissue. The cells are present throughout the tissue in giant clams. The bottom shows heart cockle “tubules” which contain their symbiotic algae. The algae are restricted to narrow tubes that run through the tissue of the cockle. Source: Farmer et al. 2001

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.

When a clam gets an offer it can’t refuse

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.

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.