Thursday, September 12, 2013

Species species of the Week week #9 OR Artisan Beach Shovels

Hang on to your hats and prepare to be astounded by amazing sea life!

You know this week's tautonym as "The Billion $ bivalve", "The Chlam with the Charisma", "A Hell of a Shell", 

That's right, ladies and germs, this weeks tautonym is none other than:

Mercenaria mercenaria

Sorry if I got your hopes up, it's not my fault! With the rare exception, clams just make for soul-crushingly boring pictures. If I led with that picture you probably would have just browsed away to watch a cat climb into a fish bowl(1)

Ok, so thanks Blue Planet, now everyone thinks that the only cool things in the ocean are stunningly beautiful. But we know better right? Heck yes, we know better! Beauty is on the inside (Figure 1).

Figure 1. ACK No, beauty is not there either! Christ, that's gross! Make it stop, I'm eating my lunch here! 
I'm kidding, I don't think it's gross, and that could very well be your lunch. Not mine, though, I don't eat gross things like that.  I mean, of course, that it's INTERESTING. But not worthy of narration by Oprah I guess. Photo credit: R. Koss, U. Alberta

In fact, you probably already (and if you don't you soon will) appreciate M. mercenaria for the following reasons:
  • The most common common name(2) of this clam is Quahog. If you don't get why that is relevant to anything ever, suck it up and click on the link and get with the times.
  • The large shells make great artisanal, locally-sourced digging tools at the beach! (Figure 2)
  • It's one of the most widely consumed clam species(3) in the US. If you've had actual New England clam chowder, this species is a likely candidate for the gummy bits that make you wonder whether you are actually eating bits of your exercise band from pilates class.
  • It is the state shell of Rhode Island, and, yes, state shells are a thing. And don't act like you're surprised that states have such arcane totems, states got everything!
  • An individual M. mercenaria was dated as the LONGEST LIVED ANIMAL!
Figure 2. I really should be paid for my graphic design skills

So, aside from the list of quasi-interesting marginalia, these shells aren't much to look at.   But I did find a few interesting pictures of what are supposedly Mercenaria mercenaria shells (Figs 3 and 4)

Figure 3. From Roger Williams Univeristy.

Figure 4. From, which you should check out

Notice the cool patterns? That reminded me of a clam that shares the common name of "littleneck" with M. mercenaria.  The Japanese littleneck, which is also called the Manila Clam (Venerupis philippinarum) is part of the same family of clams, and is also important in aquaculture. I talked to shellfish growers a few years ago who were extremely excited they had figured out how to control some of these shell patterns (Figure 5, also, WOAH). And I'm all like, wow, thats so cool, so you can tell if your clams have wandered onto a neighboring bed (like branding cattle!), and the grower was all like, "yeah, I guess, but really it just makes them more appealing at the market." So, lesson learned people, don't be fooled into paying higher prices for a pretty clam.

Figure 5.  Not a tautoym, but indeed a good lesson in why color is not a good character to use to tell species apart - at least in invertebrates

ERRATUM!: It turns out the oldest clam reference is not Mercenaria mercenaria, but another quahog (which makes sense given the arctic distribution). I just assumed (and you know what they say about assuming) that since they said quahog, and didn't give a species...well, serves me right.  BUT it turns out that clam was 100 years older than they thought it was.  Thanks, Hillary B. for providing me with the truth.

References and miscellany:

(1) Ok, now you've gone and done it and off you are on your little voyage down the cat video rabbit hole - enjoy! and don't miss out on Maru.
(2) New blog series? Common common names?  Post it on Tuesday or some horrific day of the week like that? But srsly, there are a bajillion common names for this species, and more than a few synonymized scientific names as well. 
(3) God I thought current mixologists had gone off the deep end - seriously, this is a terrible idea.

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