The Flamingo Tongue: A spotty snail with a secret shell

Pickle shaped with cobble stone spots and a peachy base, the flamingo tongue is a snail that really doesn’t look like a flamingo’s tongue. Or a snail.

A reason for its odd appearance is that this martian-like mollusc appears to have no shell. While most snails have that distinctive swirly shell on their back, the flamingo tongues cover theirs with their mantle.

flamingo tongue
Photo: Laszlo Ilyes

This isn’t the mantle that sits around your fireplace holding family photos. A mollusc’s mantle is the body wall on their dorsal side, or essentially the skin on their back. Usually this secretes the shell, so that the shell sits on top, but for flamingo tongues it grows to cover the shell up.

So actually it’s the mantle of this snail that holds the remarkable spotty pattern and the shell within is just a plain, pale peach. Sadly this misunderstanding means that many are plucked by shell collecting divers only for the animal to die and its bright mantle to disintegrate, leaving the plain shell behind.

flamingo tongue shell
Photo source: Wikipedia commons

But why is their mantle so striking anyway? It’s a warning sign. The sea fans and sea whips that these animals eat contain toxins which the snails retain to make them distasteful to predators.

These snails will also group together by following each other’s mucus trails and this increases the protection they get from their bad taste and bright colours. Predators near large groups quickly learn not to eat them so that naïve predators are rarer than if they were spread out in small numbers.

If you care to visit these odd animals they’ve chosen a pretty lovely place to live, roaming through the shallow reefs of the Caribbean Sea and the Florida Keys of the U.S.A. So not only are they from a beautiful place, they’re pretty beautiful themselves.

flamingo tongue 2
Photo: Denise McNair

 

References: 

Gerhart, D. (1990) Fouling and gastropod predation: consequences of grazing for a tropical octocoral. Marine ecology progress series, 62, 103-108. Retrieved from: http://www.int-res.com/articles/meps/62/m062p103.pdf

Gerhart, D. (1986) Gregariousness in the gorgonian-eating gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum: tests of several possible causes. Marine ecology progress series, 31, 255-263. Retrieved from: http://www.int-res.com/articles/meps/31/m031p255.pdf

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