Shipworm: A Monster


The Startling, Late-Night Encounter

Naturally, in the middle of the night, I was scrolling through my phone texting and playing mindless games, when I got a notification. Although I have been trying to delete this annoying phone app that sends me random news notifications, I still manage to get spontaneous messages about irrelevant news. This time instead of being unimpressed and deleting the notification immediately, I noticed the picture that went with the notification:

Shipworm 1

My first reaction was ewww. What even is that? A worm? An eel? I had no idea.


Apparently, it is a Shipworm.


After I was done looking at the notification, I found the full story online:


Only described vaguely throughout the 18th century along with only minor research during modern times, shipworms were somewhat mythological and not the largest modern concern. Not much information about shipworms are known due to their lack in continuity in habitat and how easily they transfer habitats. Recently they discovered a new species, named Kuphus polythalamia (or, loosely, the Giant Shipworm), who does not bore in wood like normal shipworms. Kuphus, rather lives in sulfur-rich mud, they have evolved to acquire bacterium that converts the sulfur in the mud into an “organic carbon that feeds the shipworm,” similar to how plants perform photosynthesis(Utah). Due to the lack of knowledge regarding shipworms, their only impression is one full of monstrous, pest-worthy, and mythological connotations.


Love the Monster

Wooden peers, wooden hulls of boats, and any kind of wooden structures are subject to consumption ad destruction by the wood boring bivalves, called Shipworms. It was born a monster in the new age, when Europeans were traveling around the world by boat, after large improvements in the wood industry and ship-building industry. In this time, the shipworm “quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy… giving them life and an uncanny independence” (Cohen). It reveals and warns against long sea travel and entering into unforeseen arenas of untold peril. The fear of shipworms was an “all-purpose modifier to denote technological crimes against nature;” the crime of people that have no respect for the home they live in, supporting a solely monological viewpoint.

During the beginning of modernism, in relation to shipworms, is the early 1400s as conquerors began to spread into undisturbed land masses and continents to do as they may. At that time, no one was concerned about the environment or the untouched perfection of nature. The care and respect for the environment came later when “unwanted consequences came back to haunt the originators of such actions” (Latour). The shipworms were the tale and the obstacle that warmed against the revolutionizing of the shipping industry and the further destruction of the environment, but was blatantly ignored by our predecessors.

Although some may view the sea and its creatures as an intricate web that affects everything including humans, many see the world more in a monological sense: that humans are “surrounded by resources that promote the self” (Rose). Modernists of the early ages believed they could simply conqueror and escape the ‘nature’ of the natural world, but the shipworm obstacle can be “taken as a contradiction, or even as a monstrosity” to that goal. Shipworms are not a pest to be hated, their monstrosity did contradict humankind’s goals, but we failed to recognize that we fostered their growth by building wooden boats and peers into nature. We have confused “the monster for its creator and blame our sins against Nature upon our creations,” but our true crime is not that we fostered the shipworms but that we “failed to love and care for them” (Latour) We saw Shipworms as obstacles and pests to our goals, while not recognizing how we were intruding on their environment, and they were merely thriving on what was given. Shipworms warned us of their monstrosity, yet instead of recognizing the sins we performed against nature, we blamed the worms for our lacking.


In History: Shipworm attacks go as far back as “1503, shipworms honeycombed the vessels Christopher Columbus brought on his fourth voyage, sinking at least two of them” and in 1588 “played a role in Britain’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, weakening the timbers of the Spaniards’ superior fleet” (Gilman). They have been represented in monstrous proportions and described as a plague.

Shipworm 2


Life to Death

In truth, however, digesting wood is not the easiest task. Shipworms have an uncanny ability to digest wood, and are the ocean’s main wood-recyclers. The shipworms are creators of life by “taking a resource that fish can’t eat, and turning it into larvae, which is something that fish can eat” they are creating life without death (Gilman). By killing or reducing shipworm populations, which are practices that take place worldwide, people are twisting their death into more death. Seeing them as more of a sort of plague, rather than something that helps maintain the fragile ecosystem of the sea, which makes it easier to promote their eradication.

However, according to the article I found, normal shipworms have the ability to digest wood for nutrients, but surprisingly the new giant shipworms have a “symbiotic bacteria to digest down the inorganic compound and release more nutritious carbon for them to eat,” materials that are not wood (Kish). The shipworms are capable of digesting inorganic compounds and converting them into edible substances. Possible applications of bacterium of this sort could possibly reduce waste in the ocean, that is largely created by humans.

Although the research described for the betterment of mankind and for the further understanding about a rare species, the process of “studying” the shipworms are a death narrative including the capturing, killing, and dissection of a harmless creature. However, this “death is twisted back into life” and, then, works for continuity(Rose). The death of a handful of shipworms not only could promise the mending of the environment humans destroyed, but also the publicity may have raised awareness to the fragile and interesting state the shipworms are in.

The Reality

The media awareness and curiosity surrounding this illusive bivalve may not give the wanted reaction. The purpose of the news report I shared was to bring awareness to a rare species that is increasingly mysterious and could hold promises for the future of mankind. However, the wave of attention may transform the interesting, alien-like species to become a “increasingly rare commodit[y],” which could cause a surge of hunters, salesmen, and even over-eager researchers that could exploit this new species of shipworm (Kirksey).  The species was found barely a month ago, but only time can tell the fate of these interesting species.


Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffery. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory,edited by Jeffery Cohen, Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 1-25.

Gilman, Sarah. “How a Ship-Sinking Clam Conquered the Ocean.”, Accessed 1 May 2017.

Kirksey, Eben. “Species: a praxiographic study.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 21, 2015, pp. 758-780.

Kish, Stacy. “Science Fiction Horror Wriggles Into Reality With Discovery of Giant Sulfur-Powered Shipworm.” The University of Utah, Accessed 1 May 2017.

Latour, Bruno. “Love Your Monsters.” The Breakthrough, Accessed 1 May 2017.

Rose, Deborah. “Judas Work: Four Modes of Sorrow.” EnvironmentalPhilosophy, vol. 5, no. 2, 2008, pp. 51-66.


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