hunchbacked conch or jumping snail

A hunchbacked conch or jumping snail actually jumps upward and forward to escape predators

(Photo by Sjannie Lefevre)

If you have ever watched a snail creep along from point A to point B, you know that its like watching pant dry on a wall. The motion of a snail is painfully slow. What with today’s technology, we have even termed regular mail, “snail mail” when compared with e-mail that can be sent to someone instantly. However, contrary to popular belief, there is a species of snail, the hunchback conch, with jumping reflexes that surpass the movements of other snails. These snails “jump” in response to smelling predators. This snail, in particular, is extremely sensitive to it’s environment. Marine scientists are taking advantage of studying this snail and how it may respond to changes in the acidity and temperature of seawater; a result of global climate change.

The primary predator that loves to feast on the hunchback conch is the cone snail; one of the deadliest snails known to exist. These predators can shoot a venomous harpoon (called a toxoglossan radula) faster than the blink of an eye into their future meal. Hunchback conches (Gibberulus gibberulus gibbosus) have the unique ability to hop away on their “foot” when they sense one of these deadly snails drawing near. It has been observed that these snails can jump for up to five minutes in an extended , stressful situation. While performing this feat, hunchback conches consume a high amount of oxygen to keep their circulatory systems chugging while undergoing strenuous physical activity. Researchers wish to know how changes, such as temperature, may affect the overall physiology of various species of snails as climate change occurs.

Cone snail

Cone snails are one of the deadliest snails in the world.

(Photo: bioweb.uwlax.edu)

Sjannie Lefevre, who researches snail physiology at the University of Oslo in Norway,and her colleague, performed a study on hunchback conches with two other scientists from James Cook University. Hunchback conches that had been collected from the Great Barrier Reef were put into tanks containing the odor of cone snails that would stimulate the conches’ jumping behavior. Lefevre and her colleagues then proceeded to increase the temperature and acidity within the tanks to see how it would affect the precision of the snail’s ability to circulate oxygen. Even at a heated temperature of 38 degrees Celsius, the snail’s were still able to circulate oxygen and continue to jump. At a temperature of 38 degrees celsius, most fish that inhabit a coral reef would be dead. The increased temperatures had no affect on the conches’ ability to increase their oxygen flow while jumping.

a marine snail

Marine snails are able to circulate oxygen from their underwater environment

(Photo: Zoonar/Poelzer Wolfgang)

When the scientists increased pH of the water, the regular levels of oxygen that the snails use to jump didn’t decrease much either. The specific pH they used was when carbon dioxide hits 450 to 1,000 parts per million. This is the expected carbon dioxide level of pH in seawater that is predicted for the year 2100. In addition, each snail was put into a respirometer to measure their use of energy physiologically while jumping. The results showed that the snail’s metabolism was not affected by the changes that were occurring in its surrounding environment.

In conclusion, Lefevre and company found that neither a warmer temperature nor an increase in acidity deterred the snails from getting a jumpstart in escaping from their predators. I bet they were practically bouncing off the walls! This study is one of the first of its kind in regards to snail physiology. Other studies regarding snails may soon follow in its wake.

Unfortunately, it has been observed that not all marine life can survive a significant increase in ocean temperature. Corals bleach, krill diminish and an increase in algae block plankton from receiving their nutrients from the sun. However, animals and plants CAN adapt to change. We must not give up hope.

If you are curious and wish to know more about this fascinating study, you can check out Sjannie Lefevre’s findings in this month’s issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology. Hopefully more studies will be conducted on the behavior of other species of marine life in order to see how they may respond to global climate change. The more we expand our knowledge about the natural world, the greater our potential for saving various plant and animal species from extinction.

Works Cited:

  1. Milius, Susan. “Jumping Conches Triumph at Overheated Athletics”. Science Ticker. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/jumping-conches-triumph-at-overheated-athletics. Web. 9 October, 2015. Accessed 14th October, 2015.
  2. Gorman, James. “A Snail that has a Jump on Climate Change”. The New York Times. http://www.mobile.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/science/a-snail-that-has-a-jump-on-climate-change. Web. 12th October, 2015. Accessed 14th October, 2015.