ANN ARBOR, Mich. What mechanisms control the generation and maintenance of biological diversity on the planet?
It's a central question in evolutionary biology. For land-dwelling organisms such as insects and the flowers they pollinate, it's clear that interactions between species are one of the main drivers of the evolutionary change that leads to biological diversity.
But the picture is much murkier for ocean dwellers, mainly because the scope of ecological interactions remains poorly characterized for most marine species. In one of the first efforts to examine how species interactions drive diversification of ocean-dwelling organisms, two University of Michigan researchers and an Australian colleague looked at the lifestyle choices within an exceptionally diverse superfamily of tiny clams, the Galeommatoidea.
They found that the fingernail-size-and-smaller clams' propensity to shack up with much larger, burrowing creatures such as sea urchins, shrimp and worms was a key adaptation that led to the evolutionary success of the superfamily, as measured by its "megadiverse" status among marine bivalves. There are about 500 described species of galeommatoidean clams and many more undescribed species.
By becoming the uninvited house guests of their burrowing hosts, these freeloading, thin-shelled clams acquire a safe haven from predators prowling soft-bottomed sediments, where there's nowhere else to hide. Gaining this deep refuge opened up a vast habitat type soft-bottom marine sediments composed of sand, silt and clay that would otherwise have remained unavailable to these clams.
Galeommatoidean clams are found worldwide in all the major ocean basins, in both rocky and soft-bottom habitats. Some of the clams live a solitary existence, while others form so-called commensal relationships with larger invertebrate hosts. A commensal relationship is one in which one organism benefits and the other is not harmed.
|Contact: Jim Erickson|
University of Michigan