New species of clam discovered in Chile. Photo credit: Dr Javier Sallenas

By Matthew Owens

A new species of clam (vesicomyid bivalve) has been discovered in the depths of the Pacific Ocean off the Coast near El Quisco in central Chile. Scientists have named the clam Austrogena Nerudai after Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

The new Austrogena genus was generated after inspection of its anatomy and genetic testing established the uniqueness of the mollusc. Austrogena Nerudai, the namesake of Nobel laureate and Communist Party member Pablo Neruda, was found along a stretch of coast near one of the Poet’s houses, Isla Negra.

“One of Neruda’s passions was collecting shells.” Says Co-author Dr Javier Sallenas from Universidad Católica del Norte. “He had a very nice collection and he valued the most magnificent specimens and the more modest ones the same.”

The international team trawled the ocean floor at a depth of approximately 340 metres looking for dead shells. Live specimens were collected on a previous expedition.

“Many years ago, doing some surveys in order to characterize benthic habitats we recovered some empty shells of a clam we were not able to identify.” , explains Sallenas. “In 2010, in a joint cruise between Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from USA and Universidad Catolica del Norte from Chile, we went back to that place and did a more systematic survey in order to find the living animals, and we succeeded.”

The new clam shares many similarities with others in terms of the appearance of the outer shell, which may have lead to clams being misclassified in the past.

“Probably this is the case for a few species, advances in genetics have helped to separate species that morphologically look alike.” Says Sallenas.

Detailed anatomical study, however also showed that the clams possesses several important distinguishing features.

“This family of clams is very special, since their gut is non-functional and they obtain their energy from chemosynthetic bacteria living in their gills. Bacteria in turn obtain energy from chemicals (like sulfide and methane) in the sediment. They are typical of places like methane seeps or hydrothermal vents.”

Although between 20-30 live specimens of Austrogena Nerudai were recovered it is still difficult to tell how large the population might be. All indicators, however, pont to it being relatively common. But very little is known of marine life in the region and there may be other species waiting to be discovered

“… we still have sampled a very tiny fraction of the seafloor. In our new project we will be studying seamounts around Easter Island, giving the remoteness of the place we expect many new findings.”

The findings are reported in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

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