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.

Apps that Darwin would have loved

Was Charles Darwin first? Kind of depends – Harvard Gazette

Most people know that Charles Darwin was a cerebral, deep thinking type. He traveled the world, collecting data about those finches and other stuff on field expeditions, synthesizing big ideas over decades to form his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, where he set out his theories on natural selection and its role in evolution. However, you might not know that on a day-to-day level, Darwin was an all-around nerd’s nerd who just wanted to learn everything he could about the world, motivated by an unending sense of curiosity.

Darwin was a man who pulled plankton nets, filtering seawater just to see what cool stuff would show up when he put the resulting sample of goo under the microscope. He fiddled for earthworms and wrote a book about them over 40 years (including an experiment where he watched their progress burying a bunch of rocks over a 30 year period). He kept a heated greenhouse where he studied orchids and carnivorous plants. I consider Darwin a role model, because it’s hard to find a topic in natural history that he didn’t write about. The dude was just an unfillable sponge of knowledge.

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A view of Darwin’s greenhouse. Source: The Darwin Correspondence Project

I think Darwin would have marveled the online information that we have easy access to today. If Darwin were a researcher today, I could imagine him hosting a forum or listserv where he’d moderate, muse over the natural world and keep correspondence with the other leading scientific minds, much as he was a prolific letter writer with other researchers of his time. He might not be huge on Twitter: a bit too fast paced for his liking I bet; but I think he’d love two apps that I have also fallen in love with over the last few years.

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The Explore page on iNaturalist, where you can see what species other people have recently observed in your area!

The first is iNaturalist (Android, iOS), a website and social network where you can upload pictures of any lifeform, attach information about its location, time of day and other info, and the machine learning powering the site will try to identify it for you, with amazingly accurate results. If the AI can’t figure it out, experts are waiting in the wings to provide an identification or confirm yours. Think of it like a Pokedex or Pokemon Go, but for “collecting” real life creatures. And like Pokemon Go, it can be insanely addictive to find out about all the species that are all around us at all times. iNaturalist also has an app called Seek that makes the process even more gamified!

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a view of my observations

I am definitely an iNaturalist addict, and have accumulated a healthy collection of observations over the past couple years. My first was a red-shouldered hawk that I saw on campus during my PhD, but then I moved onward to fungi and plants I saw walking from my car to the office, and went back through my past pictures to identify bats I saw in Belize, fish I saw diving, and of course, my beloved banana slugs. I find it’s particularly satisfying to find out how life around you changes through the year, with the seasons. When I felt like pulling my hair out during my PhD, it kept me grounded to be able to know that the first spring flowers were opening, or the fledglings of birds were leaving the nest, or the winter rains were bringing all sorts of new fungus and banana slugs to life among the undergrowth.

I think being in touch with our natural world can help us now. While we’re sheltering in place, we don’t have to be trapped within ourselves. Even in the densest cities, there are so many bugs, flowers, birds and squirrels all around us going about their lives while we are effectively on pause. It brings me relief to know that life continues, and satisfaction to be able to understand them. Knowledge really is power, and if you know the relations between all the types of life both in evolution and ecology, it makes the world make sense in a way that provides a weird zen-like peace.

To that effect, there is a #citynaturechallenge happening starting yesterday, from 4/24-4/27/20. Take pictures of living things around you and upload them to iNaturalist, Twitter and elsewhere with that hashtag! My uploads there have been of interest to researchers studying rare snails of the Negev desert, writing books about tropical bats, and researching invasive beetles. I have been following uploads of giant clams on iNaturalist for quite some time, including the newest described species, Tridacna elongatissima, which users had been observing on the Eastern coast of Africa before it was formally described in a recent paper! I bet Darwin would have been a major, influential user on iNat.

Darwin was also a big nerd regarding rocks and fossils. Evolution is the story of life, and we can only understand that story by turning to the fossil record for information. Environmental changes provide a major motivating factor pushing life to constantly change. Geology in Darwin’s day was a developing field, with the first geological maps appearing only due to the work of William Smith and others, mere decades before Darwin’s work came to be. But his work would not have happened without the growing understanding of the massive passages of time needed to deposit the rocks all around us today. Evolution typically needs time, and fossils provide proof of how life has changed during those almost incomprehensibly long intervals.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/38/A_new_Geological_map_of_England_and_Wales_by_William_Smith_%281820%29.jpg
One of William Smith’s geologic maps

To find a fossil of an age we are interested in, we must know the rocks present in the area. And the second app I’ll mention today is RockD (Android, iOS), which we can use to figure out the type of rocks right under our feet, how they were made, how old they are and even what kind of fossils have previously been found within. The data in RockD is pulled from two sources that scientists have lovingly curated. Macrostrat is a database of stratigraphic (rock layer) data that scientists have aggregated into one of the most detailed and comprehensive geologic maps ever made. And the Paleobiology Database collects observations that scientists have made over the decades of almost every fossil that has ever been found and recorded.

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Of local geology when you first open RockD (my detailed coordinates obscured ;))

Rather than relying on only printed maps for his work, Darwin would have loved the ability to pull out his phone in the field and instantly know the combined work of dozens of previous researchers to understand the rock he was looking at. You can even “check in” and upload your own pictures of rocks to help researchers improve their databases, and go back in time to look at where the continent you live on was during the time of the dinosaurs!

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Geologic map of my area. Darwin would have seriously nerded out checking out the locations of faults, formations and other features

These are only two of many apps and websites that I think would have blown Darwin’s mind. We are living in a golden age of digital science, with so many new discoveries being precipitated by the availability of easily accessible, free information in the palms of our hands. But more than that, it is fun to go outside and be able to decode the mysteries of the world around you without even being an expert in natural history. In the process, you might find yourself becoming an expert!