Decorator Snails | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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Decorator Snails

The snails covered with other creatures and objects

In the NHMLA Malacology Collections, each of these snails contains its own mini collection of shells.

 

They look like a craft project gone awry — snail shells covered with other shells. But no hot glue guns were required: these are totally real marine snails in the genus Xenophora. (Xeno as in “other,” which denotes the “otherness” of the embellishments these snails place on themselves.)

a photo of a snail with a large glassy sponge growing off it
This snail shell held by Malacology Curator Jann Vendetti has a very large glassy sponge on it.

“No one knows quite how or why they do this,” says NHMLA Malacology Curator Jann Vendetti. “It’s been very understudied.”

These snails decorate their swirly shells with various objects, including the shells of other (dead) snails, as well as clams, scallops, corals, and rocks. And on top of that, sometimes sponges or barnacles grow on the shell as well. It can get pretty crowded.

But what good is it to have a bunch of objects stuck to your shell? When they’re set out on a table, one outcome is noticeable: the additions lift the snails off the ground, which in life could help them maneuver in sticky mud more easily.

“It’s like built-in stilts,” explains Collections Manager Lindsey Groves.

a photo of a snail in a box, where the added shells to its own shell help lift it off the ground
Sitting on a tray, this snail shell hovers above the surface, held up by snail shell stilts.

But how do they manage to attach these objects to their shells in the first place?

Vendetti and Preny Riganian, a student at Glendale Community College and intern at NHMLA, are currently looking into this malacological mystery, starting with Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM for short). With this powerful microscope, they can observe the shells’ microstructure, which might yield clues as to how these snails fasten various objects onto themselves.

“What is interesting to me, and what I am trying to figure out, is how they actually attach these objects to themselves,” says Riganian. “I am looking at the points of attachment under the SEM to gain some insight into this extraordinary process.”

a photo of the underside of a xenophobia snail, with shells poking out over the edges
When looking at the underside of these snails, it’s easier to see the relatively even spacing of their decorations.
a photo of a xenophora snail with rocks and shells attached t it
This snail used a combination of rocks and shells.
a photo of a xenophora snail with barnacles on it
This snail shell is sporting some barnacles, which look a little bit like roses.

 

 

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