FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAILS & SHELLS: COLOURFUL GASTROPODS OF THE CARIBBEAN
AN UPDATED VERSION OF THIS POST WITH NEW IMAGES AND MATERIAL (AS WELL AS A RETREAD OF SOME OF THIS POST) WAS POSTED IN NOVEMBER 2014 AND CAN BE FOUND HERE
The FLAMINGO TONGUE SNAIL Cyphoma gibbosum is a small sea snail (marine gastropod mollusc), related to cowries. The live animal is brightly coloured and strikingly patterned, but that colour is only in the ‘live’ parts – the shell itself is pale and characterised by a thick ridge round the middle. These snails live in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and wider western Atlantic. Whether alive or dead, they are easy to identify.
This snail on the left (thanks, Wiki) is snacking on a coral stem, leaving a feeding track behind it. The structural shell ridge is clearly visible beneath the distinctively marked live tissue.
The flamingo tongue feeds by browsing on soft corals. Adult females attach eggs to coral which they have recently fed upon. About 10 days later, the larvae hatch. They eventually settle onto other gorgonian corals such as Sea Fans. Juveniles tend to live on the underside of coral branches, while adults are far more visible and mobile. Where the snail leaves a feeding scar, the corals can regrow the polyps, and therefore predation by C. gibbosum is generally not harmful to the coral.
The principal purpose of the mantle of tissue over the shell is as the creature’s breathing apparatus. The tissue absorbs oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. As I have seen it described (unkindly?) “it’s basically their lungs, stretched out over their rather boring-looking shell”.
This species was once common but is becoming rarer. One significant threat comes from snorkelers and divers who mistakenly think that the colour is the shell of the animal, collect up a whole bunch, and in due course are left with… (see photos below)
These photos are of flamingo tongue shells from the Delphi Club Collection. Until I read the ‘boring-looking shell’ comment, I thought everyone thought they were rather lovely… you decide!
Finally, a couple of videos. The first is rather charmingly titled ‘FLAMINGO TONGUES DOING…. SOMETHING’. Any (printable but amusing) suggestions via the Comment box are welcome (Hi Trish!). The second punchily summarises this post. Maybe that’s all that was needed!
The Flamingo Tongue Snail must have other food sources too. I found a live one in a tidal pool near the Maryland/Virginia border. (Where the water is far too cold for any coral reefs.)
I first collected this creature as an amazing shell (like so many others accidentally do) but after being undisturbed for a while, it moved. So I returned it to the ocean, from whence it came.
Most interesting! The northern range limit is generally said to be North Carolina, so yours was a bit out of its comfort zone. Coral reefs are not mandatory for them, I don’t think – they can live on algae elsewhere. Your snail’s survival is amazing. Maybe it went into a dormant state, like hibernation. They are known to store toxins as protection – maybe it lived on those? [I’m assuming you didn’t have it in an aquarium]. Thanks for the story. RH
I learn so much on your blog about sea life (an interest of mine since childhood) but these flamingo tongued snails are wonderful. It is such a shame that sea creatures are so often exploited.
I learn so much too – it’s a good process. 18 months ago I knew nothing about anything like that! Someone has offered me some good FTS pics, which I will add. The ‘let’s collect that pretty thing’ mentality is quite hard to accept – the creatures are living at that stage… Find pretty shells, I say.