A snail that has a jump on climate change (text & video)

A coral reef can be a scary place. There are predators like the marbled cone snail, with its deadly darts. They can make other snails jumpy. Literally.

The humpback conch is one of them. It also known as a jumping snail. And one of the things that make it jump is the smell of a nearby predator. That sensitivity is very useful for researchers who are studying how the snail responds to warmer temperatures and more acidic seawater.

That’s important, according to Sjannie Lefevre, who studies snail physiology at the University of Oslo, because such conditions are predicted as a result of climate change. Scientists expect damage to reefs, but not much is known about how snails and their relatives may respond.

Dr. Lefevre and a colleague at Oslo and two other researchers at James Cook University in Australia used water tainted with cone snail odor to provoke the small conchs to leap (a few inches at most). The researchers tested their oxygen consumption to see if increased warmth or acidity interfered with their physiology.

They did not. Neither warmer temperatures nor higher acidity stopped the snails from ramping up their use of oxygen to make the leaps.

This is good for the jumping snails, but this test focused on only one aspect of snail life and physiology. Earlier experiments showed that acidity could cause some snails not to respond to cone snail odor the way they did in less acid water.

These snails were jumpers, however, and researchers put them — one at a time — in a small chamber called a respirometer to test not their willingness to jump, but the physiology of energy use during jumping.

Oxygen presence in the water was measured, which showed how much the snails were taking up. Just a bit of water from an aquarium with a cone snail in it was needed to make a jumping snail hop for its life.

Measurements showed that the jumping metabolism was fine, and not affected by the changes in environment. The researchers published their findings in the October issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology.

James Gorman, The New York Times, 12 October 2015. Text & video.

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