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Researcher finds tiny clam on South Coast which was once thought to be extinct

A tiny type of clam once thought to be extinct has been discovered off the Santa Barbara County coastline.
Jeff Goddard
A tiny type of clam once thought to be extinct has been discovered off the Santa Barbara County coastline.

Clam is 10 millimeters in size (less than a half inch!)

It sounds like a plot from one of the Jurassic Park movies. A scientist doing field research on the Santa Barbara County coastline discovers a creature believed to be extinct. In fact, the only known example of it is a fossil discovered in the 1930’s.

Three of them have been found alive, and well. But, they aren't of course dinosaurs. It’s a tiny little clam, less than a half inch in size.

"It's super exciting. It's always exciting when you find something new," said Dr. Jeff Goddard, a Research Associate at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute.

In 2018, he was exploring tidal polls west of UCSB, at Naples Point. He was looking for sea slugs when he spotted something very unusual.

"When I turned a rock at Naples Point, what I saw was an exquisitely
delicate little clam," said Goddard. "I had never seen anything like it."

But, if it wasn’t a known type of clam, what was it? Goddard turned to a colleague for help. Paul Valentich-Scott, with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, is an international recognized expert on bivalves.

The problem was Goddard didn’t have one of the clams to examine. Goddard went back to Naples Point again looking for the tiny clams. But it wasn't easy. On his ninth trip, he finally found one.

Reseacher Jeff Goddard with some students.
Megan McOsker
Reseacher Jeff Goddard with some students.

As they dug deeper into the mystery, it was some research done nearly 100 years ago by another California museum into some fossils, which solved the mystery.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History received thousands of fossils as the result of a construction project in the Baldwin Hills. Among them was one of the tiny clams. As the Santa Barbara County researchers looked into the data from the 1930's, they realized they had identified their tiny clam — Cymatioa cooki.

Goddard only found three of the live clams, as well as a shell. Remember they are only about 10 millimeters in size. But they are clams believed to have been extinct. The researcher thinks the clams are hitchhikers from the Baja California Coast swept north by the ocean, possibly during El Nino years.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.