Threatened snail species in top 5 of ‘Mollusc of 2021’

VU animal ecologist Joris Koene, together with Cuban colleagues, has studied a threatened snail species that inhabits eastern Cuba. Their work has ensured that this snail is one of five nominees in a worldwide competition for the title of ‘Mollusc of 2021’. If the snail emerges as the winner, its genome will be sequenced, allowing Koene and his colleagues to better understand the snail's reproduction and help the species survive.

01/28/2021 | 11:23 AM

The Painted Snail
The Painted Snail (Polymita picta) is a unique creature. Although Cuba is the country with the greatest diversity of snail species in the world, this is the only snail with such an extensive variability of colours and stripe patterns. Koene was especially drawn to studying the snail due to the species’ interesting mating behaviour. “The snails have what is known as a love dart which they use to spear the partner during mating. We are currently studying why they do this and how it actually works. In another snail species, this behaviour promotes the fertilization of eggs,” says Koene. “The snail is also known for suppressing fungi on Cuban coffee plantations by eating them, for example."

A threatened animal species
In 2019, Koene visited Cuba to study this snail and a number of related species. There he worked with the research group of Bernardo Reyes-Tur, a nature conservation biologist and snail expert at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba. One of the places they encountered the snail was the Humboldt National Park, an extensive wildlife area in eastern Cuba. The snail is threatened as its habitat is under pressure and because of the illegal trade in their shells. “By better understanding the snail’s reproduction cycle, we will be able to help the species survive. This is why they are also bred in the lab in Santiago de Cuba,” says Koene.

Understanding the genetic makeup
The ‘Mollusc of 2021’ competition is a joint venture between research institute The LOEWE Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics (LOEWE TBG), the Senckenberg Museum Frankfurt and Unitas Malacologica, the association for worldwide malacology (the study of molluscs). The five nominated mollusc species were selected from more than 120 nominations by a scientific jury.

If the snail wins the competition and its genome (the genetic makeup) is consequently sequenced, it will for example be possible to study the specific chemicals used in their love darts and to identify the genes that determine the various stripe patterns and colours on their shells. A sequenced genome will also help scientists to better understand the evolution of the love dart. Moreover, winning the competition will generate the international attention necessary to protect this species' habitat.

Voting is possible until 31 January via https://tbg.senckenberg.de/mollusc/.

Image: Polymita picta, Bernardo Reyes-Tur