Geography Cone Snail

Various shells that used to belong to Geograph

Although you wouldn’t think it, these seemingly innocuous shells belong to one of the most dangerously venomous creatures on the planet, and they are called Geography Cone Snails. I saw the little shells at the Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition at the Natural History Museum amongst various (less dangerous) animals. These animals, named for the mountain-like patterns on their red-white shells, are the most venomous animals on Earth, capable of delivering a fatal sting through a barbed harpoon that is actually a modified tooth. There is no known cure for such a sting the only method of survival being to last until the venom in your blood wears off. Bizarrely, this predatory snail only hunts on small fish, which it stuns with a poison soup before spearing and ingesting through its proboscis. We can, for this reason, assume that the venomous barb is for mainly defensive purposes, since using this kind of poison on small fish would be the largest recorded case of overkill ever seen.

Around 10cm in length, not only is this snail hard to spot in passing, but it is also scarily common, found fairly regularly in reefs around the Red Sea and the east African coast. 0.001 mg of the venom used would be enough to kill half of the population if every person were given a dose of that size, and even 0.0002 mg can seriously paralyse someone. Ironically, the venom has recently been discovered to contain a type of insulin, previously unseen, that can also be used as a highly effective painkiller, several thousand times more powerful than morphine without any of the addictive side effects that normal morphine gives. The problem remains of how to produce large quantities of these proteins for public use. How do you milk a Geography Cone? Very carefully. The answer to this may lie in implanting bacteria with plasmids containing the appropriate DNA for this proteins production, similarly to the way that Factor 8 and human insulin are produced for hospitals. Research is on going.

While this creature is extremely interesting (the most venomous animal on Earth, after all) and actual cases of snail attacks are very low, I hope that I never run into one of these unseeming killers while it’s having a bad day.

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