Field of Science

The Solemyoida: A Taste for Sulphur

Atlantic awning clam Solemya velum, copyright Guus Roeselers.


The small bivalves that make up the Solemyoida were long a mystery, ecology-wise. Though they have a long history, potentially going back as far as the Ordovician (Cope 2000), they are not known to have ever been diverse, and only just over fifty species are known from the modern fauna. Living solemyoids are divided between two very distinct families that probably diverged near the origin of the group. The Solemyidae, awning clams, have relatively long shells that gape at each end, no teeth in the dorsal hinge, and tend to have an unusually thick periostracum (the overlying layer of horny proteinaceous matter that covers the outside of the mineral shell). They generally live in burrows buried deep in sediment. The Nucinellidae are a group of minute clams with an average length of about half a centimetre that are mostly found in deep waters, generally not buried quite so deep in the mud as the awning clams. They have a less elongate shell than the Solemyidae that does not gape and simple peg-like teeth in the hinge. What the two families do share is a markedly reduced gut and feeding appendages that initially caused much speculation about what exactly they were feeding on.

Nucinella sp. with foot extended, from Taylor & Glover (2010). Scale bar equals 1 mm.


The answer, as it turns out, was that they were not exactly 'feeding' on much, if anything. Solemyoids have relatively large gills that provide a comfortable living place for sulphur-oxidising bacteria, sheltered from the outside world while the host clam keeps up a continuous flow of water through its burrow from above the sediment surface. In return, the bacteria fix hydrogen sulphide rising from the underlying mud to provide both themselves and their host with nutrients. In this way, solemyoids have largely been able to get by without actively eating for close to 450 million years, achieving something the likes of Jasmuheen can only dream of.

REFERENCE

Cope, J. C. W. 2000. A new look at early bivalve phylogeny. In: Harper, E. M., J. D. Taylor & J. A. Crame (eds) The Evolutionary Biology of the Bivalvia pp. 81–95. The Geological Society: London.

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