“Cayo Margarita Snails” – Researchers Uncover Novel Bright Yellow Snail Species in Florida

by Amir Hussein
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new marine snail discovery

An underwater high-resolution image displays the lime-hued Cayo galbinus snail, a newly identified species, in the reefs of Belize. The two dark spots serve as the eyes of the snail. Image Credit: R. Bieler

The vibrant citrus hue of the marine snails may serve as a natural deterrent to predators.

The fictional locale of “Margaritaville” in the iconic song by Jimmy Buffett has long been linked with the Florida Keys, a chain of tropical islands that boasts the only living coral barrier reef in the mainland United States. Among its unique biodiversity is a recently discovered snail of bright yellow coloration, named in tribute to the song’s “Margaritaville.” This lemon—or key-lime—colored snail and its lime-green Belizean counterpart are the focus of a research paper published in the academic journal PeerJ.

An In-Depth Examination of Worm Snails

Distant cousins to terrestrial gastropods commonly found leaving moist trails in gardens, these marine snails are colloquially known as “worm snails.” These organisms tend to be sedentary, staying in a single location for most of their lives.

Rüdiger Bieler, the Field Museum’s curator of invertebrates in Chicago and the principal investigator of the study, notes, “These snails are interesting because they are similar to ordinary free-roaming snails, but upon finding a favorable environment, they anchor their shell to the substrate and remain stationary for the rest of their lives. Their shell continues to expand in an irregular tube-like formation around their body, and they forage by deploying a mucus net to ensnare plankton and organic particles.”

A high-definition underwater snapshot of the Florida Keys’ Cayo margarita snail, a new species, reveals the long tentacles that the snail employs to extend its mucus net for capturing food. Image Credit: R. Bieler

Having dedicated four decades to the study of invertebrates in the Western Atlantic, Bieler observes that these particular snails are small and so effectively camouflaged that previous scuba diving expeditions had missed them. “We had to be highly attentive,” he remarks. The newly identified species is part of the same marine snail family as the invasive “Spider-Man” snail described in 2017 from the Vandenberg shipwreck near the Florida Keys.

Insights into Coloration and Genetic Diversity

Bieler and his scientific partners, including Field Museum colleague Petra Sierwald, located the lemon-yellow snails in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and found a similar lime-green specimen in Belize. “A multitude of snails exhibit polychromatic traits—different colors within the same species,” states Bieler. “Even within a single population cluster, variations can exist. These colors may serve as a mechanism to bewilder predators.”

When Bieler initially encountered the two differently colored snails, he assumed they were the same species. However, DNA sequencing proved them to be significantly distinct.

Taxonomic Classification and Biodiversity Significance

Based on the molecular evidence, Bieler, Sierwald, and co-authors Timothy Collins, Rosemary Golding, Camila Granados-Cifuentes, John Healy, and Timothy Rawlings designated the snails into a new genus, Cayo, named after the Spanish term for a small, low-lying island. The yellow snail received the scientific name Cayo margarita, inspired by Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” while the lime-colored snail was named Cayo galbinus, meaning “yellowish-green.”

Shared Characteristics and Ecological Importance

The Cayo snails share a particular feature with another worm snail genus, Thylacodes, for which a new species from Bermuda was identified and named Thylacodes bermudensis. Though only remotely related, these snails all possess bright head coloration protruding from their tubular shells. Bieler suggests this might serve as a warning coloration due to harmful substances in their mucus. This could be the reason for their capability to expose their heads without being consumed by predators.

Bieler emphasizes that this research contributes valuable knowledge to our understanding of coral reef biodiversity, which is increasingly endangered by climate change. “Different species are unequally equipped to handle rising global water temperatures,” he notes. The Cayo snails tend to inhabit dead coral fragments, and as more coral dies, their populations might proliferate.

Furthermore, Bieler adds, “This discovery reiterates the fact that even in well-explored and frequently visited areas, there remain unidentified species.”

The study was a collaborative effort involving scientists from the Field Museum, Florida International University, Queensland Museum, and Cape Breton University.

Reference: “Replacing mechanical protection with colorful faces–twice: parallel evolution of the non-operculate marine worm-snail genera Thylacodes (Guettard, 1770) and Cayo n. gen. (Gastropoda: Vermetidae)” by Rüdiger Bieler, Timothy M. Collins, Rosemary Golding, Camila Granados-Cifuentes, John M. Healy, Timothy A. Rawlings, and Petra Sierwald, published on 9 October 2023, in PeerJ.
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.15854

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about new marine snail discovery

What is the significance of the newly discovered snail species?

The discovery of the new bright yellow marine snail in the Florida Keys contributes to the understanding of marine biodiversity, particularly in the context of the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. The snail has been named in tribute to Jimmy Buffett’s song “Margaritaville.”

Where was the new snail species discovered?

The new snail species was discovered in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. A similar lime-green variant was also found in the reefs of Belize.

Who conducted the research on this new snail species?

The research was led by Rüdiger Bieler, curator of invertebrates at the Field Museum in Chicago. The study was a collaborative effort involving scientists from the Field Museum, Florida International University, Queensland Museum, and Cape Breton University.

What journal published the research findings?

The research findings were published in the academic journal PeerJ.

Are these newly discovered snails similar to common snails?

These marine snails are distant relatives of land-dwelling gastropods but differ significantly in their behavior and habitat. They are sedentary, anchoring themselves to a substrate and remaining in one location for most of their lives.

How do these new snails feed?

These snails deploy a mucus net to trap plankton and organic particles, a method of foraging that differs from that of common free-roaming snails.

What is the ecological importance of the new snail species?

The snails have a tendency to inhabit fragments of dead coral. With increasing threats to coral reefs due to climate change, understanding the role and adaptability of such species becomes crucial for marine ecology.

What is the genetic diversity of the new snails?

DNA sequencing showed that the lemon-yellow snails found in Florida and the lime-green snails found in Belize, although similar in appearance, are genetically distinct.

What does the snail’s bright coloration signify?

The vibrant citrus hue of the marine snails may serve as a natural deterrent to predators. This coloration is thought to be a form of warning, possibly linked to harmful substances in their mucus.

Are there more such unidentified species in well-explored areas?

According to Rüdiger Bieler, even in areas like the Florida Keys, which are frequently visited and well-explored, there are still unidentified species, highlighting the vast undiscovered biodiversity in marine ecosystems.

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