Why eating clams sometimes makes us sick (Part 1 of 2)

Image result for oysters
Is eating these a gamble? Science can help improve our odds!

I am often asked if I eat clams. The answer is yes: while I love to observe live clams and appreciate their abilities, I will eat a good clam chowder or plate of grilled scallops if presented with the chance. While I’m generally not a fan of super fishy-tasting foods, I eat bivalves with a clear conscience because farmed mollusks represent a super sustainable way to get protein! However, as many of us have learned the hard way, shellfish can sometimes produce unwanted results later after the meal, if the animals are contaminated with food poison. Eating such “bad” clams can produce a spectrum of food poisoning symptoms ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to memory loss to even paralysis and death.

Humans have known the hazards of eating shellfish for a very long time. It has been suggested that the ban on shellfish present in kosher and halal dietary rules arose as a preventative measure to protect from food poisoning (though eating fish, land animals and even vegetables can poison people in numerous ways as well). Studies of oysters have determined that ancient peoples of modern day Georgia from 5000 years before present selected their season of harvest based partially on knowledge of the seasons when such poisoning was most prevalent in their area.

How and why does this happen, and what can we do to prevent it? It’s a billion-dollar question, because when flare-ups of shellfish food poisoning happen, they are hugely costly to fishermen and the food industry, costing millions of dollars a year in lost business when fisheries are forced to shut down and products are recalled. Such events are increasing in frequency and severity. Which makes it all the more strange that these shellfish poisoning events are not the fault of the bivalves per se, but rather what they’re eating.

Note: people generally get annoyed when you start to point out the body parts of the oyster they’re about to swallow whole. Source

Almost all bivalves are filter-feeders, using their gills to gather small passing food particles, which they then either ingest or discard based on the quality of the food item. Clams are cows crossed with Brita filters, and for many species of clams which we eat, the reason they do all this filtration is to find phytoplankton food. Phytoplankton are microscopic algae suspended by ocean currents that make their living from photosynthesis. They are a hugely plentiful and high-quality food item, making up a huge amount of the biomass available in the ocean. Like plant-life on land, phytoplankton are highly seasonal in their appearance, rising and falling in abundance in periodic “bloom” events.

an image of red tide in Florida
Aerial view of a red tide off the Texas coast. Source: NOAA

But as Spongebob Squarepants taught us, plankton are not always peaceful. Many types of algae produce toxic compounds which may be integrated into the body parts of bivalves that eat them. Scientists call the blooms of algae which produce toxins “Harmful Algal Blooms” (HABs), and such events are growing in frequency and cause huge harm to marine life and sicken thousands of people per year. There are many algae species which cause HABs all around the world, sometimes visible as “red tides,” but not always. When HABs occur, they can lead to mass deaths of higher animals in the food chain that feed on clams such as marine mammals and seabirds. In fact, HABs are at their most dangerous to humans when they catch us by surprise.

Who me? I’d never!
Microscope view of the toxic dinoflagellate Karenia. Source: NOAA

When humans eat bivalves which have been dosed with such marine toxins, many types of poisoning can occur. Brevetoxin is produced by a type of dinoflagellate phytoplankton Karenia as well as other species, and when humans are exposed, we can suffer from Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning, which causes vomiting, diarrhea and even neurological effects like slurred speech. Saxitoxin is produced by a variety of plankton species including dinoflagellates and freshwater cyanobacteria. When ingested in clams (such as the butter clam Saxidomus which gave it its name), fish or other animals, it can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, a sometimes fatal syndrome which shuts down nerve signaling, leading to temporary paralysis.

So we know it’s bad for humans to ingest these toxins. What is it doing to the clams? Oddly enough, some types of toxins like saxitoxin are not that harmful to the clams or other plankton eating animals, allowing them to accumulate huge amounts in their bodies with little ill effect. Its presence does not seem to influence their feeding behavior much, or their growth after exposure. Its status as a neurotoxin in mammals might be a total chemical and evolutionary coincidence, as researchers suggest that it may actually serve as a signal in some part of the algae’s mating cycle. This also may be the case for brevetoxin, which appears to be produced when Karenia is under environmental stress. But there is not much agreement in the HAB and aquaculture research fields, because there are many types of algae, which may produce their toxins for many reasons, and it is very hard for us to zoom in to the scale of the microbe and out to the scale of the ecosystem at the same time, to find any kind of universal evolutionary role of these toxins. Some researchers insist that some bivalves are influenced negatively by brevetoxin, but only at the juvenile stage during major bloom events. The effects of the toxin may only influence certain species, or only become significant if the toxin reaches the digestive tract of the bivalve. Overall, research into impact of HABs on clams is still a topic of active research, and the idea that the microbes produce these toxins to defend against bivalve predators is definitely not a slam-dunk, easily proven hypothesis. While some clams are negatively affected by the toxins, it is not consistently observed across species in a open-and-shut way, and it can be a subtle effect to observe and quantify scientifically.

Karenia to mammals: Oops!

The more I read about this stuff, the more shocked I am at the incredible complexity of marine algae and their toxins. I only started reading about them trying how to to understand how they influence bivalves. I was hoping to find some evidence of their effects on bivalve growth that I could apply back in time in fossil shells to understand the historical occurrence of HAB events. It’s important to understand HABs because they hurt people, cost our society a lot of money and if we understand how to avoid them, we can help minimize such impacts in the future as HABs continue to become more common. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the ways that researchers have come up with to measure and monitor HABs, so that we can eat clams as safely as possible.

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 has a stowaway

My mussel contained a tiny half-eaten crab! - Imgur
Source: jeredjeya on Reddit

Bivalves put a lot of energy into their shells. These hardened, hinged sheaths of carbonate are an effective defense against many predators looking to get at the squishy clam’s body encased inside. Parasitic pea crabs have evolved to free-ride on the bivalves’ hard work.


(video courtesy Dana Shultz)

Pea crabs are small (pea-sized), very specialized parasites which live in the mantle cavity of many bivalve groups including oysters, mussels, clams and more. The mantle is the wall encasing the soft body of the bivalve, and the cavity is the space between this soft gooey tissue and the shell itself.

For a pea crab, there is no better place to be than this tiny, claustrophobic space. In fact, they can’t live anywhere else, though some species have been found in other unusual places such as inside the anuses and respiratory tracts of sea cucumbers (link SFW, fortunately, unless you’re a sea cucumber). In a bivalve host, the crab is protected from predation by the shell, and the bivalve provides a constant buffet of food as it sucks in suspended particles with its gills. The crab steals some of this food from itself before the bivalve can digest it.

As you might imagine, having a crab living in you taking your food and pinching at your gills is not an ideal arrangement for the bivalve. Pea crabs damage their hosts’ gills with their constant picking, and bivalves infected with crabs suffer slower growth than uninfected individuals, particularly for those unlucky enough to play host to the larger female pea crabs. At a certain point, the males will sneak out of their hosts and find a bivalve with a female crab inside. At this point, they mate inside the host’s shell, adding great insult to injury. The female releases her larvae, which swim out to infect new hapless bivalves and start the cycle over again.

Aww, she’s expecting! The papers refer to this as being “with berry” which I find amusing for some reason. (photo from Dana Shultz)


You might think that commercial oysters with crab parasites would be thrown out, but to the contrary, finding a pea crab or its close relative the oyster crab with your meal is a cause for celebration in some areas, such as the Cheasapeake Bay. The crabs are eaten whole and often raw, and are said to have a texture akin to shrimp, with notes of sweetness and umami. Personally I prefer surprises in my Kinder eggs rather than in my shellfish, but to each their own.

A pea crab serves as a nice side dish for this lunching sea otter. Source: Brocken Inaglory on Wikipedia