Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Clam for Ken Kesey

"That's a CLAM!?" This reaction to a particular animal is almost guaranteed when people look at them for the first time. Check it out.

Oh man, who just leaves a tie-dye shirt laying around on a coral reef?
Courtesy: Nick Hobgood via Flickr

Okay first off, that looks nothing like what belongs in my chowder. Second, this animal just goes to prove that the 60's got to everyone. So where does counter-culture clam come from and why's it so psychedelic? Editor's Note: This post is greatly improved when accompanied by Strawberry Alarm Clock's: Incense and Peppermints, or your own favorite psychedelic rock song.

Well what you're looking at is a Tridacna (pronounced: Tri-dack-na) clam. They're more commonly called giant clams, but I don't really like that name because not all of them are giant. In fact one species, Tridacna maxima, has the common name "small giant clam"; that's just silly so were gonna stick with their scientific name for this post. Anyway Tridacna don't look much like their relatives, but all the pieces are still there. They have heavy rippled shells like their cousins the cockles, and the part that you see sticking out is their mantle (the body of a mollusk) and their siphons (The channels clams use to feed and breathe). These combined anatomical parts are what make up the "meat" of the clam that we eat.

Plankton filled water flows into the hole on the right, and strained 
water flows out of the tube on the left.
Courtesy edgeplot via Flickr

Tridacna clams live on coral reefs in the tropical Western Pacific. Once they settle out from the plankton they spend their entire lives in that single spot. They don't dig into the ground, but instead let it all hang out. Truly these bivalves (animals with two shells) have gotten the hippy lifestyle down pat.

In fact it turns out that Tridacna's trippy colors and patterns are essential to its survival. The reason Tridacna don't dig into the sand is that they're part of a self sustaining commune. Just like the stony corals around them; these mollusks host symbiotic algae under their skin. In order for the algae to photosynthesize they need to be exposed to the sun. The hinge of the clam's shell is heavier than the opening, so it can tilt face up and spend the daylight hours with its skin spread out in the light. The algae get protection from consumers, and the clam gets nutrients without having to feed. Having a backup way to get your food is especially helpful on coral reefs because the water around them is usually lacking in plankton. Completely clear water is great for snorklers' ability to see, but not so great for filter feeders' ability to eat.

"Come on baby light my zooxanthellae" -Jim Molluskson
Courtesy: Eric Johnson via the NOAA Photo Library

Now as anyone who's forgotten sun screen on a tropical vacation can attest, the sun at the equator is incredibly strong. Solar radiation in the middle of the day is so intense that photosynthesis can actually decrease as the clam's symbiotic algae try to protect themselves from sun burn. But this is a collective man, and the clam does its part to help the algae function efficiently.

The algal cells under the clam's skin are arranged in stacked towers, which is confusing because that means the cells on top shade out those below them. To counter this Tridacna have their own cool cells called iridiocytes (pronounced: ear-id-ee-oh-sites) which bend light in different directions. The iridiocytes reflect yellow and green light (which aren't used by the algae) away from the stacks, and reflect blue and red light (which are useful) towards them. Essentially the iridiocytes screen out the best light for the algae, soften its intensity, and evenly distribute it across the stacks of cells.

The combination of colorful algae and reflected light come together to create the mind expanding visual experience of looking at a Tridacna's skin. Cameras can't really capture how magnificently colored these animals are, so I really encourage you all to take a trip to your local aquarium and see them for yourselves. But here's another picture to tide you over 'til then.

  Couretsy: Nick Hobgood via Flickr


Holt et al., "Photsymbiotic giant clams are transformers of solar flux", Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Oct. 2014, DOI 10.1098/rsif.2014.0678 Accessed via:

Soo, Pamela & Todd, Peter A., "The behaviour of giant clams (Bivalvia: Cardiidae: Tridacninae)", Marine Biology, 2014, DOI 10.1007/s00227-014-2545-0 Accessed via:

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