In case sharks, rip tides, and tidal waves weren’t enough to keep you running away from the shoreline, lurking in shallow tropical waters and hidden in beautiful shells are one of the most venomous predators in the ocean –cone snails.
Here at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, our curator has several thousand cone snail shells in the behind-the-scenes collections. There are about 700 types of cone snails, members of the Conidae family, that range from the size of smaller than a penny to the size of 8 inches (20 cm.). Despite their wide variety, there is one thing all cone snails have in common – venom.
Cone snails are a fearsome example of carnivorous snails that hunt fish and worms use a tooth that is harpoon-like in shape that injects a
venom, so complex that some species can kill a human with one small prick. The venom varies from species to species, and most contain as many 50 different peptides which are short chains of amino acids.
The complexity of the venom makes creating an antidote difficult, but it also has piqued the interest of researchers who have been able to harness its potency for good.
“It’s better living through snails,” said Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Assistant Curator of Mollusks Tim Pearce.
The venom of Conus magnus was used to develop a drug that may be 100 to 1,000 times more effective than morphine, without the risk of addiction and users do not build up a tolerance. Pearce said nearly all patients who have used this drug have had one strange side effect – they hear music.
The good news is only two species (Conus textile and Conus geographus) are known to have actually killed humans, and the number of known cone snail fatalities is less than 100.
So swim along safely, but maybe think twice before pulling a beautiful shell from tropical waters especially if it is alive.
Click here to watch a cone snail hunt.