Cone Snail Fieldwork Film 2018
By Dylan Taylor
This video was filmed in 2018 in the province of Cebu which is located in the central Philippines. The field research work and filming is being carried out under the remit of Distinguished Professor Baldomera Olivera of the University of Utah and in collaboration with The University of The Philippines Marine Science Institute in Manila.
In this piece, you can take a look at some footage of predatory marine cone snails from the Genus Conus. All of the cone snails are predators, individual species of cone snail specialise in terms of the prey they hunt. There are three main categories of cone snail that are recognised; piscivores that consume fish, vermivores that prey on worms and molluscivores that feed on other snails. We will see examples of each type, as well as some footage of a vampire snail from the Genus Colubraria, feeding on the blood of a live fish
The cone snails and their relatives have become the focus of intensive research, in large part due to their possession of extremely diverse venom compounds including conotoxins. These conotoxins have led to breakthroughs in neuroscience and the development of new pharmaceutical products.
At the start of the field trip, local fishermen in The Philippines collect the snails and deliver them to the researchers. The researchers sort them into individual species and prepare to extract the venom ducts.
The scientists dissect the snails to locate the venom duct. Each venom duct is then carefully removed and preserved for shipment to the various university facilities that will later extract the numerous venom components that each species possesses. The venom components are being studied to further understand their properties and potential applications in various fields.
Most of the subsequent research happens in laboratories, at a molecular level using cutting-edge techniques and processes. It is common for an individual venom sample from a cone snail to contain what is effectively a cocktail of hundreds of different venom components, each of which has a different effect on the victim. The conotoxins studied so far have been found to have an enormous range of effects on the nervous system. When tested on mice, for example, some conotoxins cause paralysis, some cause hyperactivity, some send the mice to sleep.
In a bid to understand why these snails possess such a diverse range of toxins, Professor Olivera has chosen to look beyond the molecular lab and learn as much as possible about the natural history of the cone snails. As you will see in the film, whilst the cone snails do use their venom to obtain prey, they can also use the venom for self-defence when their own lives are in danger.