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Cone Snails have an arsenal of tools and weapons under their pretty shells. These reef-dwelling hunters nab their prey in microseconds, then slowly eat them alive.
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New research shows that cone snails — ocean-dwelling mollusks known for their brightly colored shells — attack their prey faster than almost any member of the animal kingdom.
There are hundreds of species of these normally slow-moving hunters found in oceans across the world. They take down fish, worms and other snails using a hollow, harpoon-like tooth that acts like a spear and a hypodermic needle. When they impale their prey, cone snails inject a chemical cocktail that subdues their meal and gives them time to dine at their leisure.
Cone snails launch their harpoons so quickly that scientists were previously unable to capture the movement on camera, making it impossible to calculate just how speedy these snails are. Now, using super-high-speed video, researchers have filmed the full flight of the harpoon for the first time.
From start to finish, the harpoon’s flight takes less than 200 micro-seconds. That’s one five-thousandth of a second. It launches with an acceleration equivalent to a bullet fired from a pistol.
So how do these sedentary snails pull off such a high-octane feat? Hydrostatic pressure — the pressure from fluid — builds within the half of the snail’s proboscis closest to its body, locked behind a tight o-ring of muscle. When it comes time to strike, the muscle relaxes, and the venom-laced fluid punches into the harpoon’s bulbous base. This pressure launches the harpoon out into the snail’s unsuspecting prey.
As fast as the harpoon launches, it comes to an even more abrupt stop. The base of the harpoon gets caught at the end of the proboscis so the snail can reel in its meal.
The high-speed action doesn’t stop with the harpoon. Cone snail venom acts fast, subduing fish in as little as a few seconds. The venom is filled with unique molecules, broadly referred to as conotoxins.
The composition of cone snail venom varies from species to species, and even between individuals of the same species, creating a library of potential new drugs that researchers are eager to mine. In combination, these chemicals work together to rapidly paralyze a cone snail’s prey. Individually, some molecules from cone snail venom can provide non-opioid pain relief, and could potentially treat Parkinson’s disease or cancer.
--- Where do cone snails live?
There are 500 species of cone snails living in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Caribbean and Red Seas, and the Florida coast.
--- Can cone snails kill humans?
Most of them do not. Only eight of those 500 species, including the geography cone, have been known to kill humans.
--- Why are scientists interested in cone snails?
Cone snail venom is derived from thousands of small molecules call peptides that the snail makes under its shell. These peptides produce different effects on cells, which scientists hope to manipulate in the treatment of various diseases.
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---+ For more information:
Here’s what WebMD says about treating a cone snail sting:
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