They may not sound it, but cone snails are deadly. Packing a syringe-like tooth that is laced with venom, they jab and paralyze their prey before gobbling it up. Their venom can even kill a human. But as its home is affected by climate change, this crazed doctor of the sea is suffering from, well, an acid trip.
A textile cone snail (Conus textile). Wikimedia commons.
According to a study published in Biology Letters, cone snails can’t handle the levels of acidification that are expected due to climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) has unfortunately got to somewhere, and our oceans are a prime target (around half of the CO2 produced by fossil fuels ends up in the oceans). Sea water absorbs CO2 and in doing so the pH of the ocean slips lower and lower, becoming more and more acidic.
Now this can be catastrophic for species that are accustomed to a stable pH, corals in particular are at risk as they can’t soak up essential carbon carbonate for them to build their skeletons.
But the cone snail has a very different problem. Ocean acidification appears to, quite literally, send them on an acid trip. The researchers found that rising CO2 made the snails hyperactive, but not in a good way as they charged around at up to three times their normal speed and caught less prey.
“They meandered around instead of moving by stealth and sneaking up on their prey,” lead author on the study Dr. Sue-Ann Watson of James Cook University says. When acid free, cone snails will lie in wait and ambush their prey using the aforementioned demonic syringe-tooth.
The effects of the acid were dramatic. Only ten percent of those exposed to higher CO2 levels caught prey, while 60 percent of those in normal conditions were successful.
Watson says that the results of the study could have implications beyond just cone snails and their prey.
“Marine snails and other molluscs are important for the ocean food chain and are also resources for humans. If their behaviour changes, their could be a flow-on effect in the food chain — these changes could potentially affect commercially important seafood species,” she warns.
So although it may sound hilarious, a snail on an acid trip, the starving and meandering cone snail stands as another example of how we are tampering with nature, and just how uncertain we are of the long-term effects this will have.