Musings . . . On Shipworms

We learned recently that King Richard III had worms. Roundworms. One wonders what else his life might have had in store for him had he not been killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The process by which this parasitic creature, whose proper name is ascaris lumbricoides, infects its human host is far too repugnant to describe. In most cases these days its victims survive, suffering breathing and abdominal symptoms. It’s estimated that around one billion people are currently infected worldwide, with these animals living inside them. At least it’s curable . . .

Much of our Dockwood had worms. Well, not really worms – shipworms. And shipworms are not worms, but clams! They look like worms because their shells have evolved into tiny rasp-like things, and their bodies trail from them, worm-like. The sharp-edged shells chew into wood that’s submerged in the sea, drilling into it as it’s eaten, their bodies protected inside the tunnel they’ve made. They produce enzymes which allow them to digest the cellulose of the wood.


Our favorite furniture material is riddled with thousands of the tiny holes made by our native shipworm species, Gould’s shipworm (bankia gouldi).

The most common shipworm, teredo navalis, whose holes, at about one centimeter, are much larger, is famous for rendering ships “rotten,” and un-sailable within ten years from their launching. Spanish conquistador captains used them as an excuse to burn their ships after landing in the New World, to prevent their men from deserting and sailing them back home. It wasn’t until the 18th century that fastening sheets of copper to ships’ bottoms was to finally prevent their destruction by the ubiquitous teredo.

But to this day, wooden docks and piers fall inevitably victim to these little critters. And when they break up in storms and become flotsam, and wash in up in pieces on our local beaches, we salvage the lumber for our furniture projects.