An international team of scientists is studying live specimens of a giant, black, mud dwelling worm-like animal — a Kuphus polythalamia — that feeds on sulfur and lives in a shell that looks like a baseball bat.

People have known about giant shipworms for centuries but obtaining live ones for study has been elusive. Researchers from the University of Utah, Northeastern University, University of the Philippines, Sultan Kudarat State University and Drexel University finally found the mollusks in a lagoon on an abandoned log farm in the Philippines.

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The researchers hope by studying the microbes found in of the world’s longest bivalve’s single gill they will find new antimicrobial substances.

The findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlike its slimy cousins, K.polythalamia doesn’t eat rotting wood. Rather, it burrows into the mud, consuming hydrogen sulfide. Its microbes turn the swamp gas into carbon.

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"This particular species fall square in the middle of the family, so we know it had to have a wood-eating ancestor," Margo Haygood, a research professor in medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, told Popular Science.

"Do they start out eating wood? We don't know anything about their life cycle, or where we might find more populations of them. And we have no idea how old they are. ... Are the specimens we studied a couple years old, or a couple hundred?"

The animal’s shells, which look like elephant tusks and can be 5-feet in length, often wash ashore. The giant shipworm itself is “dark gray, shiny and floppy,” Haygood said.

"I was awestruck when I first saw the sheer immensity of this bizarre animal," Marvin Altamia, a researcher at the marine sciences institute, University of the Philippines, told

Daniel Distel of the Ocean Genome Legacy Center at Northeastern University in Boston said he and colleagues were first made aware of the colony in 2010 as the result of a Philippine TV news story on people trying to eat the slimy beasts for medicinal purposes. He told New Scientist he had been “looking for them for 20 years.”

“It’s hard not to be amazed when seeing one in the flesh, even if you know nothing about them,” Distel said. “There is no other animal like them.”

Distel said the giant shipworm evolved from the wood-eating variety and likely is a newer addition to the family tree.