I always get excited when I see that Sabrina Imbler has published a new article. As both a poet and science writer, they always bring a unique perspective to their work—particularly, their preoccupation with the Venn diagram of gender/sexuality and marine life, a recurring subject of their ongoing Catapult column (and the topic of their upcoming book).
Their latest piece, for the New York Times science section, focuses on the sex lives on clams. And not just any clams—specifically, the shipworm, a notoriously naked (read: shell-less) mollusc that enjoys boring its way into wooden ship hulls. While shipworms don't really have "sex organs" in the way that us humans tend to define them, they still do absolutely get it on—sometimes, to horrific degrees, as scientists have observed.
On the unluckiest boats, their hulls honeycombed with clam-made holes, shipworms take sex one step further by hoisting up gobs of sperm with one of their siphons and inserting those gobs into the siphons of other neighboring shipworms. This insemination can even be simultaneous, with one shipworm shoehorning its sperm into a second shipworm with one of its siphons, while its other siphon receives a gob of sperm from a different shipworm neighbor.
The researchers do not know what sexes the pseudocopulating shipworms were, nor did they try to find out. Although shipworm larvae all start out as males, adult shipworms can exhibit simultaneous, consecutive and rhythmic-consecutive hermaphroditism, meaning it is almost impossible to tell what sex a shipworm is while it is alive and inside its wood burrow.
"They can be anything at any time," Dr. Shipway said. The only way to sex a shipworm is to dissect it, but even then its sex is slippery. For example, if the shipworm you dissect just went through a marathon session of pseudocopulation and belched out all its sperm, it might appear female.
It's one of those gloriously weird stories about something you never knew you wanted to learn about and yet cannot look away from. If nothing else, it's worth reading so you can file it away in the back of your brain and then bring it up at the first party you go to after you get vaccinated—a guaranteed great way to make new post-pandemic friends!
Revealed: The Shipworm Sex Tapes [Sabrina Imbler / The New York Times]
Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons