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Cone snails are striking … in more ways
They lurk in the sand around coral reefs.
And wait til you see what’s under the hood.
That pretty veneer is hiding an impressive
array of tools … and weapons.
A cone snail’s breathing tube, called a
siphon, is actually more like a sheet of muscle
rolled into a snorkel.
Besides drawing water to gills deep in its
shell, the siphon also can pick up the scent
of unsuspecting prey.
That’s when the cone snail goes spearfishing.
Its extendible proboscis is packing a concealed
A tiny, hollow harpoon made of chitin, the
same tough stuff in a lobster shell.
And the end of the proboscis is tricked out
That help it close in on its target.
When it strikes, the snail’s pace jumps
to light speed.
The embedded harpoon doubles as a hypodermic
needle to inject the victim with paralyzing
As it reels in the catch, the cone snail uses
another covert tool called a rostrum.
It opens up to swallow the fish whole.
Some cone snails hunt more familiar prey.
The smaller snail digs down to hide its shell
The predator looks for a way in.
When it finds it, the hunter hits its prey
with more than one shot of venom.
A lot is going on in the fifth of a second
before the snail fires that harpoon.
So let’s rewind and break it down.
First the proboscis flexes as the muscles
inside prepare for the strike.
Then the venom floods into the proboscis,
but stops just short of the harpoon.
A round muscle holds the lethal fluid in check,
like a kink in a hose, building even more
Then, everything blows, and propels the venom
into the harpoon, the harpoon into the prey.
What has scientists interested in cone snails
is that their venom varies not only from species
to species but also from individual to individual,
and even from shot to shot.
In fact they seem to mix their venom cocktail
on the fly from thousands of unique ingredients,
each with its own purpose.
All this variety means a world of new drugs
could lie under that shell.
Novel ways to treat things like chronic pain,
Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
Most cone snail strikes hurt as much as a
A few can kill you though, like this geography
cone, it has the most venomous sting in the
Here’s a tip: Don’t go gathering these
shells when you’re snorkeling in Australia.
Matt O’Dowd: Or as they say down under,
if it’s a cone, leave it alone.
Laura: It’s Matt O’Dowd from Space Time!
Matt: Good’ay Laura.
Laura: Matt spends as much time thinking about
very big things, like the universe, as we
do thinking about very small things.
Matt: That’s right, but if you want really
small, you check out our quantum mechanics
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Matt: Catch you later.