By Sandy Van Dijk
The flamingo tongue snail… how does a snail receive such an odd name? Was the researcher who discovered the snail an expert on flamingo tongues? Or did he or she perhaps find the snail on the tongue of a flamingo? To find out the answer, you will have to learn a bit about the snail first.
The flamingo tongue snail (Cyphoma gibbosum) is a member of Phylum Mollusca, which also includes organisms like octopus, squid, clams, oysters, scallops, slugs and others. They are found within Class Gastropoda, containing slugs and snails, and Subclass Prosobranchia which means the gills are in front of the heart. Flamingo tongue snails are part of the Family Ovulidae, also known as cowries, which have smooth, shiny shells with a long aperture (Nahabedian et al. 2007).
Flamingo tongue snails grow up to one inch in length, have a shell that is generally covered by a yellow to orange mantle with a pattern of many odd-shaped, black-edged spots. When the snail is disturbed or stressed, it will withdraw its mantle to reveal the white-to-cream coloured shell underneath (Brockman 2009).
Flamingo tongue snails are marine, living from North Carolina to Brazil in the Atlantic and Caribbean on shallow reefs (Brockman, 2009). Unfortunately, this rules out the theory that the flamingo tongue snail was found on the tongue of a flamingo. The snail lives on gorgonian corals, also known as sea fans and sea whips, individually or in pairs. Interestingly, the snails feed on the gorgonian corals on which they live, but the corals are allelochemically rich (Whalen et al. 2010). In other words, the corals contain chemicals that deter predators from eating them. Most organisms are unable to feed on gorgonian corals because of the toxic chemicals present. So you may be wondering, how does the flamingo tongue snail feed on a toxic sea fan or sea whip? The snails contain enzymes also known as Glutathione S-transferases (don’t worry, we’ll shorten that up to GSTs because I can barely pronounce that!) which are detoxification enzymes. The GSTs either biotransform allelochemicals into non-toxic chemicals which the snail is able to cope with, or the GSTs sequester the allelochemicals within the snail’s body (Whalen et al. 2010). This feeding habit of eating toxic organisms is beneficial for flamingo tongue snails for a couple of reasons. First of all, not many organisms contain GSTs that can detoxify allelochemicals, so there is a lack of competition to eat sea fans and sea whips. Another benefit is that flamingo tongue snails now contain allelochemicals which make them distasteful to organisms which prey on them. Therefore, flamingo tongue snails only have a few predators, including hogfish, pufferfish and Caribbean spiny lobsters. Many organisms have bright and striking colouration to warn predators that they don’t taste good. The common belief is that the striking black-edged spots on the pinkish mantle of the flamingo tongue snail is warning colouration, scientifically known as aposematic colouration (Gerhart, 1986).
When breeding occurs, the snails form large aggregations. The snails are dioecious, so each individual is either male or female. The females deposit eggs onto the gorgonian coral which hatch into nocturnal, plankton eating larvae, less than 5 mm long (Nahabedian et al. 2007). Because the larvae feed on plankton, they do not take in allelochemicals that cause them to be unpalatable to other organisms. This is believed to be the reason why the larvae are nocturnal, so they can avoid other organisms that may prey on them.
Flamingo tongue snails used to be very abundant across their range. Recently, their numbers have been declining as a result of scuba divers collecting them to sell for jewelry products (Nahabedian et al. 2007). Many don’t realize that the mantle is part of the living snail and when the snail dies, the mantle decomposes leaving only the cream-coloured shell exposed. So I encourage readers that go diving in any aquatic ecosystem to leave with only pictures and memories.
Let’s get back to the mystery behind the name of the flamingo tongue snail! The truth is, I am unaware as to how this yellow-orange snail with the black-edged spots got its name. After much research, I could not find any reference or reason behind the name. Personally, I believe the researcher who discovered the snail named it as a result of an overly exuberant imagination!
Brockman D. 2009. The flamingo tongue snail: a dangerous beauty. Coral Magazine. Accessed online February 19, 2015 at http://www.coralmagazine-us.com/
Gerhart DJ. 1986. Gregariousness in the gorgonian-eating gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum: tests of several possible causes. Marine Ecology Progress Series 31: 255-263.
Nahabedian S, Wood JB, Parr M. 2007. Marine invertebrates of Bermuda: flamingo tongue snail (Cyphoma gibbosum). Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. Accessed online February 19, 2015 at http://www.thecephalopodpage.org/MarineInvertebrateZoology/
Whalen KE, Lane AL, Kubanek J, Hahn ME. 2010. Biochemical warfare on the reef: the role of glutathione transferases in consumer tolerance of dietary prostaglandins. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8537.