A mysterious microscopic parasite is seeking out and killing a giant species of clam found only in the Mediterranean Sea.

Unless scientists can find a way of stopping it soon, they say the mollusk could go extinct.

For thousands of years the noble pen shell has been intrinsically connected to humans.

A noble pen shell clam
A new parasite is devastating populations of the clam species (Yiannis Issaris via AP)

The largest bivalve in the Mediterranean can grow to more than a metre long and provided food and one of the world’s rarest materials: sea silk, spun from fibres it uses to secure itself to the seabed.

The Pinna nobilis has been a protected species for decades. So the rapid spread of the parasite, which first appeared in the western Mediterranean in late 2016 and was identified just this year as a new species, has alarmed experts.

The mollusk also contributes to clear water by filtering out organic particulates.

The pen shell has been on the European Union’s protected species list for decades because of overfishing, pollution and the destruction of its natural habitat, meaning any fishing is banned.

A diver observes a pen shell on the seabed in the Aegean Sea
The clam is only found in the Mediterranean (Yiannis Issaris via AP)

But the ban is often poorly enforced, with the animal harvested for food or for its shell, which is used for decorative purposes.

The pen shells, which have a life span of several decades and take years to reach reproductive age, were already dying faster than they could be replaced.

Exactly how the parasite kills is not completely clear, although scientists have found it attacks the pen shell’s digestive system. The infected animal is also unable to close its shell, incapacitating its defence against predators. Once infected, death is almost certain.

“In less than a year it wiped out (the pen shell population of) the Spanish coast,” said Maria del Mar Otero of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Pen shells stand on the seabed in the Aegean Sea
The parasite could wipe out the entire population and force it to extinction (Yiannis Issaris via AP)

Soon parts of France, Malta, Tunisia and Italy were affected. In recent weeks, tests confirmed the same parasite, Haplosporidium pinnae, is responsible for pen shell die-offs in parts of Greece, and researchers have reported mass mortality as far east as Turkey and Cyprus.

Scientists are now racing to understand how the parasite spreads and its life cycle, which is essential information for a successful rescue programme. One theory is that it could be spreading through phytoplankton, the bivalve’s food source, but nobody knows for certain.

“We cannot be sure of anything at this point,” said Pantelis Katharios, senior researcher at the Institute of Marine Biology, Biotechnology and Aquaculture of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR).

“What we know now is that the Pinnas are dying, that the cause is this parasite, and we know that it’s spreading very, very rapidly,” he said. “And that is going to be a huge problem (for) the ecology and the balance of the ecosystem in the Mediterranean.”

Yiannis Issaris, marine ecologist at the HCMR’s Institute of Oceanography, initially noticed widespread pen shell death off the coast of Anavyssos, southeast of Athens, in mid-summer. He suspected the culprit could be the same one causing mortality in Spain — and testing proved him right.

Marine ecologist Yiannis Issaris takes measurements of a dead noble pen shell
Marine ecologist Yiannis Issaris takes measurements of a dead noble pen shell (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Now the question is how to tackle the outbreak.

“This is very fresh for the scientific community,” Mr Issaris said. “We’re still at the stage of recording where it has spread to.”

Some parts of Greece still have healthy populations of the mollusks, he noted, whereas in other areas they have been wiped out.

Protecting the pen shell in its natural habitat — sandy seabeds or seagrass meadows — appears “difficult to impossible,” Mr Issaris said, particularly without knowing how the parasite spreads. In Spain, some healthy individuals were moved to aquariums.

Although tests are pending in some Mediterranean countries witnessing mass die-offs, experts have little doubt what the results will show.

“It’s very, very, very likely” to be the same parasite, Ms Otero said. “There’s almost no question.”