Dazzling ‘glow snails’ use light for defence

By AG Staff with AAP 22 December 2010
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Experts explain the trick behind glowing Aussie sea snails.

SCIENTISTS HAVE DISCOVERED how a bioluminescent Australian sea snail is able to use its shell like a lampshade, filtering the light given off from naturally glowing cells to ward off predators.

Flashes of green light, or bioluminescence, produced by Hinea brasiliana, a snail found on the eastern seaboard, have long puzzled marine biologists.

When gathered in large groups, their collective glow can be seen from the shore in Sydney and other eastern coastal spots.

Trick of the light

“Bioluminescence is a common communication method in open water molluscs
like squid, but is much rarer in marine snails that live on the
bottom,” says Dr Nerida Wilson of the Australian Museum in Sydney.

“[However,] one snail family has several members that can produce light;
these are commonly known ‘clusterwinks’ because they group together in
crevices at low tide on the rocky shore.”

Now, a new study led by Nerida and Dr Dimitri Deheyn at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in the USA, has discovered how the snail uses its shell to regulate the glowing light show for defence. To test the source of the bioluminescence, the researchers collected specimens from seaside rock crevices and then examined them in the laboratory.