The Naval Shipworm "Teredo Navalis." A Global Player and Its Entangled Histories

Veranstaltet von
Mareike Vennen (HU Berlin) and Ruth Schilling (German Maritime Museum/Leibniz-Institute for Maritime History)

A two-day online-workshop aims at bringing together multiple perspectives on the history of the naval shipworm Teredo navalis from various disciplines. We want to reach out to and connect scholars working on T. navalis from different perspectives and fields: history, environmental and cultural history, history of science, history of knowledge as well as Science and Technology Studies.

The history of Teredo navalis spans various geographical regions, time periods, nations, industries, and disciplines. Of unknown origins, the naval shipworm has been a reoccurring protagonist in reports since ships sailed the seas. The eight-inch animal became so prominent not because of its appeal, but because of the damage and destruction it caused to wooden ships and port infrastructure: boring through the wood, it sinks wooden vessels; tunneling into underwater piers and pilings it collapses ports and harbours. The wood on which it feeds serves as habitat and as means of transportation – T. navalis has spread around the whole world on debris and the hulls of sailing vessels.

Just as one cannot detach the animal from its wooden environment, the natural history of T. navalis cannot be detached from the material, scientific and commercial history of wood and of ships and maritime infrastructures. Thus, the history of T. navalis is not only a global history, but a history of globalization, deeply rooted in colonialism, imperial trade and the history of maritime logistics. Reconstructing the natural history of T. navalis means reconstructing the entanglements between science, politics and economy and the percurrent global mobilities and entanglements in these fields. It means exploring the connections between imperial trade, sailing ships, the military-industrial complex around “wood” as a material and its ecological effects: when and where were mass occurrences of T. navalis recorded? To what extent did the damages lead to the use of new materials and techniques in ship building. And what were the ecological and economic effects of these developments (like deforestation; water pollution)?

T. navalis thus allows us to revise the heroic narratives that constitute the maritime history of the so-called “Age of Discoveries”. It further enables us to investigate the relationships between shipbuilding, shipping and maritime infrastructure on the one hand and the ecological effects and changes in marine biodiversity on the other. The organism also points to the intersection of the history of scientific classification and its moral economies, pitching “beneficial” animals against pests and “invasive species”.