The cone snail uses a deadly cocktail of neurotoxins to paralyse its prey in an instant.
To name a single creature as being the most venomous in the world is a complex issue, it’s difficult to compare venom which is designed to attack a different target. The best method in place is to test all venoms against the same species and watch what happens and, since they cannot be tested on humans, mice have been used to ascertain which species required the smallest dose of venom to prove fatal. Who came out on top? The rather surprising cone snail.
Cone snails are marine snails which use their venom to catch fish. This method of hunting explains the potency of their venom as it has to stop prey in its tracks, the kill will be of little use if the target swam off to die somewhere else. The Conus geographus is the most venomous of the species, using a complex cocktail of around 200 toxins to paralyse passing fish.
The snail buries itself in the sand and has a modified hollow radula (tooth) stored in a radular sac. This tooth acts as a harpoon which is always ready to be released in case the snail comes under threat. Once movement is sensed the snail loads the harpoon into the proboscis and laces with the deadly venom. As the fish passes overhead the snail darts its prey and the venom acts as a neurotoxin, immediately paralysing the fish which then gets eaten. The tooth is only used once and then digested with the fish, but as with all snail there is a constant supply of radula to replace those lost.
The sheer variety of the toxins used within cone snails is part of what makes them so deadly. Each species is thought to produce around 100 toxins meaning over 50,000 toxins are produced within the within the cone snail, with very little replications. These naturally occurring toxins are of great interest to scientists, who have previously tried to utilise the cone snail toxins to create a painkiller for cancer sufferers which works in a similar way to morphine. Cone snail venom is also being considered in research to alleviate parkinson’s, alzheimer’s and epilepsy.
Current records indicate that at least 30 people have died as the result of a sting from Conus geographus, with victims having only a 30% chance of survival if stung. They are native to tropical climates and also more temperate regions such as the Cape Coast of South Africa, so I’d recommend popping on some of these if you head for a paddle.
Want to be put off the ocean even more? Click here to learn about the world’s smallest deadly jelly.
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