Baby sea snails are the smallest of surfers, for good reason

8 Aug 2018

Image: Brett Allen/Shutterstock

New research into two species of sea snails show their young ride the waves in order to reach safer, shallower water.

While surfing really took off in the middle of the 20th century, tiny ocean creatures have been riding the waves for thousands of years.

New research undertaken by Rutgers University has found that larvae of two species of sea snail actually use the waves to allow them to reach safer, shallower water.

In a paper published to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team focused on species that live along the east coast of North America: eastern mudsnails (Tritia obsoleta) found in inlets, and threeline mudsnails (Tritia trivittata) found in the deeper waters of the continental shelf.

In experiments, the team found that larvae of both species reacted to turbulence by rotating or tilting the body, while they accelerated in a straight line when coming into contact with waves.

Both of these signals are detected by a tiny organ called a statocyst, similar to our own inner ear.

Sea snail close-up

A threeline mudsnail larva from wavy continent shelf waters off the US eastern coast. Image: Heidi L Fuchs/Rutgers University-New Brunswick

99pc don’t make it

This suggests that baby sea snails can detect waves as both motion and low frequency sound, allowing them to react to what’s happening around them.

When they experience turbulence, they will respond either by swimming with more effort or sinking.

Where the two snails differed was when they hit a wave. When both species experienced a wave, it was only in the threeline mudsnail that this triggered a strong reaction for it to swim upwards.

This, the team suggested, might allow the threeline mudsnail to use the shoreward drift of the waves to avoid being carried into the open ocean where they would likely die.

“More than 99pc of the snail larvae we studied die in transit, partly because they’re carried away from any place where they could survive,” said Heidi Fuchs who led the research.

“Probably one in 20,000 of these larvae survives through adulthood, so it’s critical that survivors wind up in a tolerable habitat.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic