Giant clams are found throughout the Tropical Indo-Pacific oceanic region, from the south China seas in the north to the northern coasts of Australia and from the Nicobar Islands in the west to Fiji in the east.
Biogeographic Regions: indian ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
This is the largest living bivalve mollusk. The shell may reach up to 1.5 meters in length. They are characterized by having 4 to 5 large, inward facing triangular projections of the shell aperture, thick, heavy shells without scutes (juveniles may have some scutes), and an inhalent siphon with no tentacles. The mantle is usually golden brown, yellow, or green, with many irridescent blue, purple, or green spots, especially around the mantle edges. Larger individuals may have so many of these spots that the mantle appears solid blue or purple. Giant clams also have many pale or clear spots on the mantle, referred to as 'windows'. Giant clams cannot completely close their shell once fully grown.
Range mass: 0 to 0 kg.
Average mass: 200 kg.
Habitat and Ecology
Giant clams occupy coral reef habitats, typically within 20 meters of the surface. They are most common found in shallow lagoons and reef flats, and are typically embedded in sandy substrates or those composed of coral rubble.
Aquatic Biomes: reef ; coastal
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 4 samples.
Depth range (m): 1.5 - 9
Temperature range (°C): 26.645 - 29.241
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.047 - 0.806
Salinity (PPS): 33.706 - 35.216
Oxygen (ml/l): 4.502 - 4.692
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.089 - 0.165
Silicate (umol/l): 1.217 - 3.088
Depth range (m): 1.5 - 9
Temperature range (°C): 26.645 - 29.241
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.047 - 0.806
Salinity (PPS): 33.706 - 35.216
Oxygen (ml/l): 4.502 - 4.692
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.089 - 0.165
Silicate (umol/l): 1.217 - 3.088
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
Like the majority of other bivalve mollusks, Tridacna gigas can filter particulate food, including microscopic marine plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton), from seawater using its ctenidia ("gills"). However, it obtains the bulk of its nutrition from photosymbionts living within its tissues. These are unicellular algae (often called zooxanthellae) that are farmed by the mollusk host in much the same way that corals do. In some Tridacna gigas, the zooxanthellae have been shown to provide 90% of the carbon chains metabolized. This is an obligate association for the clam and it will die in the absence of the zooxanthellae, or if kept in the dark. The presence of 'windows' in the mantle may function to allow more light into mantle tissues to fuel zooxanthellae photosynthesis.
Life History and Behavior
Giant clams reproduce sexually via broadcast spawning. They expel sperm and eggs into the sea. Fertilization takes place in open water and is followed by a planktonic larval stage. The larvae (veligers) must swim and feed in the water column until they are sufficiently developed to settle on a suitable substrate, usually sand or coral rubble, and begin their adult life as a sessile clam.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Tridacna gigas
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Tridacna gigas
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- Needs updating
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Giant clams are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN because of extensive collecting for food, aquaculture, and the aquarium trade. Numbers in the wild have been greatly reduced.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
Despite their classic movie depictions as "killer clams," there are no authentic cases of people being trapped and drowned by giant clams. Tridacnids are actually quite lethargic and slow about closing. Tridacnid-associated injuries are quite common however. They typically involve hernias, back injuries, and smashed toes induced when people lift adult clams out of the water unaware of their formidable weight in air.
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Tridacnids are integral and colorful members of the Indo-Pacific coral reef ecosystems. All eight species of giant clams are currently being cultured. Tridacnid aquaculture ventures have diverse aims that include conservation and restocking programs. Farmed giant clams are also sold for food (the adductor muscle is considered a delicacy) and for the aquarium trade.
The giant clam, Tridacna gigas (known as pā’ua in Cook Islands Māori), is a clam that is the largest living bivalve mollusk. T. gigas is one of the most endangered clam species. Antonio Pigafetta documented these in his journal as early as 1521. One of a number of large clam species native to the shallow coral reefs of the South Pacific and Indian oceans, they can weigh more than 200 kilograms (440 lb), measure as much as 120 cm (47 in) across, and have an average lifespan in the wild of 100 years or more. They are also found off the shores of the Philippines, where they are called taklobo, and in the South China Sea in the coral reefs of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). T. gigas lives in flat coral sand or broken coral and can be found at depth of as much as 20 m (66 ft). Its range covers the Indo-Pacific, but populations are diminishing quickly and the giant clam has become extinct in many areas where it was once common. T. maxima has the largest geographical distribution among giant clam species; it can be found in high- or low-islands, lagoons, or fringing reefs. Its rapid growth rate is likely due to its ability to cultivate algae in its body tissue.
Although larval clams are planktonic, they become sessile in adulthood. The creature's mantle tissues act as a habitat for the symbiotic single-celled dinoflagellate algae (zooxanthellae) from which it gets nutrition. By day, the clam opens its shell and extends its mantle tissue so that the algae receive the sunlight they need to photosynthesize.
Young T. gigas are difficult to distinguish from other species of Tridacnidae. Adult T. gigas are the only giant clams unable to close their shells completely. Even when closed, part of the mantle is visible, unlike the very similar T. derasa. However, this can only be recognized with increasing age and growth. Small gaps always remain between shells through which retracted brownish-yellow mantle can be seen.
T. gigas has four or five vertical folds in its shell; this is the main characteristic that separates it from the very similar shell of T. derasa, which has six or seven vertical folds. As with massive deposition of coral matrices composed of calcium carbonate, the bivalves containing zooxanthellae have a tendency to grow massive calcium carbonate shells. The mantle's edges are packed with symbiotic zooxanthellae that presumably utilize carbon dioxide, phosphates, and nitrates supplied by the clam.
The largest known T. gigas specimen measured 137 centimetres (4.49 ft). It was discovered around 1817 on the north western coast of Sumatra. The weight of the two shells was 230 kilograms (510 lb). This suggests that the live weight of the animal would have been roughly 250 kilograms (550 lb). Today these shells are on display in a museum in Northern Ireland.
Another unusually large giant clam was found in 1956 off the Japanese island of Ishigaki. However, it was not examined scientifically before 1984. The shell's length was 115 centimetres (3.77 ft) and the weight of the shells and soft parts was 333 kilograms (734 lb). Scientists estimated the live weight to be around 340 kilograms (750 lb).
Algae provide giant clams with a supplementary source of nutrition. These plants consist of unicellular algae, whose metabolic products add to the clam's filter food. As a result, they are able to grow as large as 100 cm length even in nutrient-poor coral-reef waters. The clams cultivate algae in a special circulatory system which enables them to keep a substantially higher number of symbionts per unit of volume.
In small clams—10 milligrams (0.010 g) dry tissue weight—filter feeding provides about 65% of total carbon needed for respiration and growth; large clams (10 g) acquire only 34% of carbon from this source. A single species of zooxenthellae may be symbionts of both giant clams and nearby reef–building (hermatypic) corals.
T. gigas reproduce sexually and are hermaphrodites (producing both eggs and sperm). Self-fertilization is not possible, but this characteristic does allow them to reproduce with any other member of the species. This reduces the burden of finding a compatible mate, while simultaneously doubling the number of offspring produced by the process. As with all other forms of sexual reproduction, hermaphroditism ensures that new gene combinations are passed to further generations.
Since giant clams cannot move themselves, they adopt broadcast spawning. They release sperm and eggs into the water. A transmitter substance called Spawning Induced Substance (SIS) helps synchronize the release of sperm and eggs to ensure fertilization. The substance is released through a syphonal outlet. Other clams can detect SIS immediately. Incoming water passes chemoreceptors situated close to the inccurent syphon, which transmit the information directly to the cerebral ganglia, a simple form of brain.
Detection of SIS stimulates the giant clam to swell its mantle in the central region and to contract its adductor muscle. Each clam then fills its water chambers and closes the incurrent syphon. The shell contracts vigorously with the adductor's help, so the excurrent chamber's contents flows through the excurrent syphon. After a few contractions containing only water, eggs and sperm appear in the excurrent chamber and then pass through the excurrent syphon into the water. Female eggs have a diameter of 100 micrometres (0.0039 in). Egg release initiates the reproductive process. An adult T. gigas can release more than 500 million eggs at a time.
Richard D. Braley of the University of New South Wales School of Zoology observed that spawning seems to coincide with incoming tides near the second (full), third, and fourth (new) quarters of the moon phase. Spawning contractions occurred every 2–3 minutes, with intense spawning ranging from thirty minutes to two and a half hours. Braley also hypothesized that clams that do not respond to the spawning of neighbor clams may be reproductively inactive.
The fertilized egg floats in the sea for about 12 hours until eventually a larva (trocophore) hatches. It then starts to produce a calcium carbonate shell. Two days after fertilization it measures 160 micrometres (0.0063 in). Soon it develops a "foot," which is used to move on the ground; it can also swim to search for appropriate habitat.
At roughly one week of age, the clam settles on the ground, although it changes location frequently within the first few weeks. The larva does not yet have symbiotic algae, so it depends completely on plankton. Free floating zooxanthellae are also captured while filtering food. Eventually the front adductor muscle disappears and the rear muscle moves into the clam's center. Many small clams die at this stage. The clam is considered a juvenile when it reaches a length of 20 cm . It is difficult to observe the growth rate of T. gigas in the wild, but laboratory-reared giant clams have been observed to grow 12 cm a year.
Behavior and growth rate in relation to temperature
The life history of a group of giant clams, the horseshoe clam Hippopus hippopus, was studied in situ in 2007-2008 in the southern lagoon of New Caledonia
Their growth rate and animal behavior were studied both by high-frequency non-invasive valvometry (MolluSCAN eye project) and sclerochronology. The MolluSCAN protocol allows autonomous long-term recordings (> 1 year) of valve movements in abandoned molluscan bivalves without interfering with normal behavior. Small electrodes (< 1 g) glued on each valve of each specimen recorded the shell gaping behavior 24/7 during a full year.
The daily behavior is quite simple basically: as in T. gigas, the horseshoe clam has its valves widely opened during daytime and partly close at night all year round. Complete closures occur only a couple of times for a few minutes. During the full year of daily recordings two striking events were associated to deviation from this basic pattern of activity. The first was the valve behavior associated with the arrival of the Tropical Cyclone Gene, the deadliest storm as well as the most damaging tropical cyclone of the 2007–08 South Pacific cyclone season. During its approach to New Caledonia, the swell amplitude reached 6-7 m in their lagoon, obviously a stressful condition for clams living at 3-4 meter-depth. Clam behavior was characterized by a sudden decrease of maximum opening state and an erratic valve activity. The second striking event was a change of maximum valve opening status that decreased progressively as the sea surface temperature reach 27-28 °C. At the solar maximum, gaping behavior became erratic. At night the valves were fully closed.
The shell growth, specifically the mean daily increment thickness of shell added daily was about 10-15 µm. The occurrence of one increment per day in H. hippopus shell was measured by valvometry. To obtain the growth history on a daily scale, one took advantage of the fact that in bivalve mollusks, calcification takes place in the mantle cavity, all along the shell internal surface: if daily growth layers are produced, a consequence is that when valves close every day, the minimal distance between electrodes also increases every day. To obtain a growth rate index, one isolates these daily values and plot them as a function of time. Shell growth was significantly correlated to rising sea surface temperature up to 27°C. But as for the gaping behavior, at the solar maximum during the warmer months, the increment thickness became erratic. In the present context of globally increasing sea water temperature it indicates that the horseshoe clams already live beyond their thermal comfort limits in summer.
The main reason that giant clams are becoming endangered is likely to be intensive exploitation by bivalve fishing vessels. Mainly large adults are killed since they are the most profitable.
The giant clam is considered a delicacy in Japan (known as Himejako), France, South East Asia and many Pacific Islands. Some Asian foods include the meat from the muscles of clam. On the black market, giant clam shells are sold as decorative accoutrements. At times large amounts of money were paid for the adductor muscle, which Chinese people believed have aphrodisiac powers. A team of American and Italian researchers analyzed bivalves and found they were rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones. Their high zinc content aids the production of testosterone.
As is often the case with uncharacteristically large species, the giant clam has been historically misunderstood. It was known in times past as the killer clam or man-eating clam, and reputable scientific and technical manuals once claimed that the great mollusc had caused deaths; versions of the U.S. Navy Diving Manual even gave detailed instructions for releasing oneself from its grasp by severing the adductor muscles used to close its shell.
Today the giant clam is considered neither aggressive nor particularly dangerous. While it is certainly capable of gripping a person, the shell's closing action is defensive, not aggressive and the shell valves close too slowly to pose a serious threat. Furthermore, many large individuals are unable to completely close their shells.
Mass culture of giant clams began at the Micronesian Mariculture Demonstration Center in Palau (belau). A large Australian government-funded project from 1985–1992 mass cultured giant clams, particularly T. gigas at James Cook University's Orpheus Island Research Station, and supported the development of hatcheries in the Pacific Islands and the Philippines. Recent developments in aquaculture, specifically at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce, Florida, and in the Marshall Islands, have succeeded in tank-raising T. gigas both for use in home aquariums and for release into the wild.
Seven of the ten known species of giant clams in the world are found in the coral reefs of the South China Sea. A programme to propagate endangered giant clams for release into the wild has been ongoing since 2007. Undertaken by the Marine Ecology Research Centre (www.merc-gayana.com) based in Gaya Island just west of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, the programme successfully nurtured all seven species of the giant clams found in Malaysian waters to sufficient maturity for them to be placed in an ocean nursery for the first time during an Awareness Month happening from 22 March till 22 April 2012 in Maloham Bay. This Marine Awareness month March 2012 – April 2012 had been planned to highlight and celebrate MERC's success in raising the giant clam larvae (called spats) to juvenile stage, to highlight the importance of the giant clams and to raise awareness and support with the general public on the threats that are faced by the giant clams within the sea. During this Marine Awareness Month, the coral restoration program will enter its final stage and attachment of 1000 one year old coral fragments grown at MERC's ocean nursery onto the coral reef would be done throughout the month. The coral restoration program is aimed to provide the giant clams with a suitable home surroundings when they are big enough in the future to be placed onto the reef.
The IUCN lists the giant clams as vulnerable. There is concern among conservationists about whether those who use the species as a source of livelihood are overexploiting it. The numbers in the wild have been greatly reduced by extensive harvesting for food and the aquarium trade.
Green and blue giant clam from East Timor
Colorful giant clam from Komodo National Park
Fully opened giant clam from Komodo National Park
A giant clam from East Timor of over 1 meter in length.
Empty shell from the Aquarium Finisterrae in Spain.
- Platyceramus, the largest bivalve in the fossil record
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