Cone Snails Develop Different Venom for Different Prey

Written by on March 30, 2015 in Marine Life

Some predatory marine cone snails have developed several different kinds of venom in order to capture and paralyze a broad range of prey.

Hebrew cone snail, Conus ebraeus. Photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Hebrew cone snail, Conus ebraeus. Photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Cone snails are among the deadliest animals in the ocean. Using “harpoon-like teeth”, they inject their prey with paralyzing venom made from a mix of more than 100 different neurotoxins, called conotoxins. The genes that allow cone snails to make these “conotoxin cocktails” are some of the fastest-evolving genes in the animal kingdom, which means the snails can continue to refine their venoms to target specific prey.

By studying Hebrew cone snails (Conus ebraeus), a tropical, worm-eating snail, researchers from the University of Michigan (U-M) revealed the mix of neurotoxins in cone snail venom varies by location and is more diverse in areas where the snails have more prey species.

“Our results suggest that prey diversity affects the evolution of predation genes and imply that these predators develop a more diverse venom repertoire in order to effectively subdue a broader range of prey species,” explained first author Dan Chang, a former doctoral student in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

What’s interesting is that the researchers were able to determine that the patterns of local conotoxin variation are most likely due to natural selection. This is important because it’s often difficult to determine if location-based variations are due to evolution by natural selection or another factor, like isolation.

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Copyright © 2015 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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