Disco Sea Snail (in the Land Down Under)
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 15, 2010
They light up inside when touched.
And the light pulsates every hundred milliseconds.
Don’t you know the feeling?
Feel the city breakin’ and ev’rybody shakin’
and we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, Stayin’ Alive.
Tracing the mysterious green flashes of light produced by a sea snail has revealed a creature built to shine from the inside – and with a shell that may be designed for communication as well as protection.
Typically found in tight clusters or groups at rocky shorelines, the clusterwink snail, or Hinea brasiliana, was known to produce light. But scientists like Dimitri Deheyn assumed the sea snails did their light thing just like their pals on the land. Terrestrial snails produce a glowing light from their foot when it’s sticking outside the shell.
Nerida Wilson of the Australian Museum in Sydney was working with the Hinea snail when she noticed these bright flashes and not the usual snail glow, so she contacted her colleague Deheyn, of the University of California-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and sent him some snails. [Sea Creature Releases Glowing Decoy ‘Bombs’]
The first difference he noticed upon receiving them was that, instead of glowing continuously, they produced light flashes that occurred only when touched.
Not only that, but when the snails retreated into their shells, as snails normally do when startled, they continued to produce light – light that you could see on the outside of the shell.
The flashes are super-fast, Deheyn said, pulsating once every hundred milliseconds or less. And as long as you keep tapping the shell, the snail continues its psychedelic outpouring. “I have records of light flashes for like a half-hour, just flashes, flashes, flashes,” Deheyn told LiveScience.
Oh, yeah, baby, show us what you got!
But writer Jeanna Bryner adds this genuine wallflower note: The shell apparently evolved translucence in tandem with the bioluminescence, allowing the snail to communicate “while remaining safe inside its hard shell.”
As is all too often the case, we have no idea yet just what this lovely creature is communicating, or why.
You can follow LiveScience Managing Editor Jeanna Bryner on Twitter @jeannabryner.