Fear the Snail: Inside the vicious world of the predatory gastropod

So snails suck, right? They’re boring and slow and they don’t do anything cool. Some of them make pretty shells that you find on the beach, but they’re pretty much slimy and gross and basically not interesting at all.

Said no one ever. At least not those who understand the world and daily life of snails. They’re tough, vicious, and sometimes terrifying in their adaptations to help them feed and protect themselves, especially in the case of marine snails, which can be as varied in shape, size, and color as the imagination.

“There are about 30,000 known species of snail,” said Gary Kidder, HMNS Discovery Guide and snail expert. “They’re a ‘Walt Disney’ class: if you can dream it, they can do it.”


Slipper snail radula. Credit: Eric Heuple

Known in the science community as gastropods, meaning literally “stomach foot,” snails feed using a rasp-like tongue called a radula. Like most animals, the teeth vary from species to species based on what particular type of food the snail eats. In carnivorous snails, these teeth are like fish hooks that tear the flesh from their prey. Imagine having your skin licked off by a giant cat’s tongue! Terrible.

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The largest snail shell in the world, on display in the Strake Hall of Malacology.

Snails are not always small; they can grow to be massive. The Australian trumpet, or Syrinx aruanus, produces shells that can be as big around as your thigh. Measuring more than 30 inches in length, the record-holder for biggest snail shell in the world is on display in the Strake Hall of Malacology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It looks like you could fit a football inside this bad boy.


Lightning whelk. Credit: DixieHwy

Predatory snails use some barbaric tactics to kill and eat their prey. There’s no saving a bivalve caught by a lightning whelkBusycon perversum (incidentally, the state shell of Texas). The lightning whelks pries open clams, wedging its soft foot between the halves of its shell, then it uses its radula to scrape out the clam a piece at a time. Kind of like a stranger kicking down your door and coming into your house to get you. Frightening.

That’s just the beginning. The moon snail, in the family Naticidae, bores into the shells of mollusks and crabs with its radula and an acid secretion. That’s right: acid. It melts a tiny hole through its prey and licks out its insides with its tongue. No thank you!


Moon snail. Credit: Chris Wilson

To stun or kill their prey, many marine snails use some of the strongest venoms on Earth. The teeth in the radula of the geography cone, or Conus geographus, are modified to carry a venomous sting that disrupts insulin in its victims. Like a revolver loaded with up to twenty hypodermic needles (instead of six bullets), the cone snail harpoons its prey, sometimes with several stings in a matter of seconds.

“The venom gives you diabetes, basically,” Kidder said. “It makes you loopy. And if they’re able to hurt something our size, a fish, it’s usual prey, isn’t going to be an issue for it.”


Conus geographus. Credit: Patrick Randall

The harpoon of the C. geographus can penetrate human skin and sometimes gloves and wetsuits depending on its size. A single sting from a Conus snail can cause muscle paralysis, difficulty breathing, and death. No antivenin exists; victims must be hospitalized until the venom wears off. Don’t pick these suckers up unless you’ve got comprehensive health insurance!

Scientists, however, see the cone snail’s venom as an opportunity for medicines, and are working to synthesize compounds from its unique chemical cocktail as treatments for a variety of diseases.


Carrier snail. Credit: James St. John

Conus isn’t the only gastropod with potential benefit to humanity. The carrier shell, in the family Xenophoridae, Greek for “bearing foreigner,” uses a type of “concrete” to attach foreign objects to itself, reinforcing its own shell as it grows. The snail’s building media include other shells, pebbles, small pieces of coral, and in some instances human refuse like bottle caps. Scientists have even discovered new species from the shells attached to Xenophora.

“This is an aquatic saltwater snail that makes a cement that ‘dries’ underwater,” Kidder said. “If we can figure out how it does that, the economic possibilities are wild!”

So next time you see a land snail leaving a trail of slime, or a shell on the beach that once belonged to a marine gastropod, remember that in its own world, this slimy, slow-moving creature is a rock star.

I Sold My Soul to Science

I have been associated with the Museum in some form or fashion for over 10 years. Not only do I work for the Museum, I live with and am married to the Museum as well.  During this time I generally get asked three questions.  The first question is always, “What is it like to be married to / live with David?” My husband David Temple is the Associate Curator of Paleontology.  If you don’t like rocks and fossils, he will be around to convert you shortly.

People assume that we have some crazy life, but mostly we are just really busy. We truly enjoy being at our house (both at the same time, which makes it more difficult). I like to think that our house is styled after the Victorian period.  Dave likes to think of it as Neo Adams.

We get the weirdest questions about our house. As if we wouldn’t have all the standards that other houses have. So to prove that this is a fact, I have some pictures. (The house is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

We will begin with the kitchen. To prove that we are normal, here is our fridge. Like everyone else, we tack important bits of info to the fridge so they don’t get lost.

Like everyone else, we have scorpion and cobra whiskey on the fridge stored neatly under a Thai head dress. We have the odd assortment of frozen foods, like butterfly wings. And dead animals.

We like coffee in the morning. And we keep our pets next to the coffee maker on the counter.

As for the Dermestid Beetles.  They are actually my pet project.

We are trying to make skeleton mounts for the Education Collections and  I thought that the beetles might help with one or two dried frogs we had managed to acquire. This is about a month into the process.  The frog in this case had been mummified for about a year before giving him to the beetles.  A smaller, fresher frog, only took about two weeks.

I love baking cupcakes. Believe me, there was talk of an intervention. Dave loves to cook.  The kitchen is the central area in our house, as it is for most people.  We often have a variety of projects beside baking or cooking though.

In our kitchen, we have a hutch where we keep cook books. Cook books are safe and normal, I am sure you would agree. Dave collects cookbooks of various cultures and time periods and cuisines.

We have a room in the house that started off as the study/office, but it wasn’t widely used as most of the activities in this room ended up in the kitchen anyway. SO, I claimed it as my sewing room. Quilting often keeps me from killing my family. It is a great creative outlet and I am surrounded by inspiration.


Our back yard is often neglected, but we do seem to have an abundance of Aloe Vera for some reason.  Occasionally we water them and call it gardening. Directly next to the Aloe is my bucket o’ bones.  If you have read my previous posts on the Museum’s blog, you will be happy to note that the bones have made it inside and are being sorted. Plus, there is the bullfrog rescue operation Dave has started.

The second question I am always asked is, “What is it like to work at the Museum?”

The Museum is a cruel mistress.  You work long hours on weird projects, often on the weekends and you love every minute of it. The Museum is home.  Your house is where you keep your stuff when not at home. Here are a few shots of my office so you can envision the crazy. Note the Tapir skeleton in the background. 

The third question I am asked is, “You must learn a lot working at a Museum, right?”  You would think so, but yet I seem to be filled with only useless information.  I think that I might have a shot on Jeopardy. So, what have I learned working here?

 I know that the Rock Hyrax’s closest relative is the elephant.

 That Thomas Jefferson fully believed that Lewis and Clark would find a live mammoth when they mapped the west.


That the cone snail is one of the most deadly animals in the world, but is also used for pain medication. 

That it is better to have a hippo head than no hippo at all.


That the First Lady can’t walk under swordfish

 That the admin elevator is the exact right size for a tapir


That the giant squid has the largest eyeball of any animal

 And that it isn’t unusual to find your place of work altered on a daily basis.


But most importantly I have learned that without the support of the Museum volunteers, our patrons and the Houston community, the Museum could not provide the quality exhibits and programming that we do!