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  • Christopher Stephens, MSc

Assailed By a Snail: Discovering The Molluscan Menace

Updated: May 14

Snails. Yes they are slow, but they can be huge, venomous and bad biters.


Snails. They are famous for being slow, the invertebrate answer to the tortoises of the reptile world. But snails are not always what they seem to be. These shelled mollusks have some scary tricks in their arsenal.


"Nature is the ultimate engineer. Snails that go fishing for a living face a problem of speed disadvantage. Their adaptive solution poses a deadly threat to humans.”

Snails are most familiar as either land snails that feed on garden weeds and vegetables, the bearers of large whelk shells popular as decorations, or huge Queen Conch shells that may weigh up to 5 pounds.


Engineering Gone Wild


Snails face a velocity disadvantage. Yes, snails have shells for protection, but they are slow. Not all snails are content to munch algae in ponds or pick at dandelions. Nature is the ultimate engineer. Snails that go fishing for a living face a problem of speed disadvantage. Their adaptive solution poses a deadly threat to humans.


Considered one of the few absolutely most venomous creatures on Earth, certain sea snails native to warmer coastal waters known as Cone snails make up around 800 species. Cone snails hide on the seafloor and wait for a marine worm or fish, depending on the species to approach. Then, they plunge their specially developed radula, developed into a hypodermic harpoon into their prey, delivering a potent neurotoxin based on peptides, an amino acid structure. Human victims unlucky enough to either tread upon a Cone snail or pick one up may die from paralysis or respiratory failure.


Not a risk to humans but exceptionally dangerous to their prey are whelks and rock snails. These hunters, like the rock snail species Leafy Hornmouth in the author's photo, taken in British Columbia, Canada hunt slow prey such as bivalves. Their challenge is the shell. How will a soft snail take on shelled prey? The gastropods drill a hole with their rasping radula and then proceed to finish their meal.

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