From Panama Jack — March 2, 2015 at 5:00 am

In The Blink Of An Eye: The Harpooning Cone Fish

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Wikimedia

Wikimedia

Attempt to imagine the following scenario: you’re presented with a plate of overly-cooked escargot, swimming in a lake of butter and capped-off with an unsavory amount of salt. Edible, sure—but by no means desirable. Now picture that same animal shooting a hypodermic needle-like harpoon across you dinner salad. Attention-grabbing, isn’t it?

Can You Hear The Ocean?

Cone snails (species found under the genus Conus) lurk in the shallows of our world’s tropical oceans, ambushing small reef fish and like invertebrates; diminutive species often feed exclusively on marine worms. Because of their poorly developed eye stalks that are located on each side of their radula (the feeding mechanism present in snails), cone snails have developed a superb “sense of smell.” The snail’s osphradium (the animal’s chemoreceptory organ) is able to extrapolate olfactory cues from the animal’s surroundings, determining what’s friend or foe, prey or predator.  And they’re just as ancient as they are deadly. Emerging in the Eocene around fifty-six-million years ago, cone snails represent one of the most evolutionary advance and specialized mollusks living today.

A Mucous-laden Landmine

The vast majority of the world’s mollusk use their radula solely consume sustenance. But the cone snail, as we know, isn’t a gastropod to follow the slime-trail of others. They’ve, through millennia of selective adaptation, evolved a harpoon-like tooth that’s hidden away in the snail’s self-effacing radula—but that’s a completely antithetical adjective to what that structure truly embodies. Compose of chitin (a glucose-like structure found in most invertebrates) its biological whaling weapon is much like it’s alludable counterpart—barbed, sharp, and lethal. When a cone snail hones-in on a unassuming prey item, the gastropod will extend its proboscis (an extension of the animal’s mouth) leaving it to hover just a hairs-length between itself and the prey item, firing a hollow harpoon that will shortly be flooded with a cocktail of neurotoxins, all within the blink of an eye. And, with similar speed, will consume the incapacitated prey item—whole. No seasoning salt insight, just sea water.

The Beauty in Deceit

Looking at the textile patterned appearance of their shells; it might strike a chord of familiarity. In fact, you may have a cascading necklace of them somewhere hidden amongst other paraphernalia from summers past. Cone snails are adorned with one of the most desirable, aesthetically pleasing shells of any mollusks. They’re often collected from pockets of beach drift and later strung into puka shell necklaces, bracelets, you name it; you’d be hard-pressed to find a beach shop that isn’t incognizantly selling the deceased remains of an oceanic toxicologist.

At this point, you can now ask your humble, patient waiter for the check and remove yourself from the imaginary eatery that you’ve created. Return to reality with hast; a speed only matched by a gastropod’s harpoon.

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