Oysters, limpets, periwinkles – as an avid shell collector, the beachcomber had seen them all. But this colorful specimen was a real surprise. Its mottled orange pattern was so pretty that it almost called out to her, and she couldn’t resist reaching a hand forward to pick it up. Little did she know, though, that with every step she was coming closer to horrible danger.
Yes, while this strange shell may look stunning, don’t let its beauty lull you into a false sense of security. Just as a rose has its thorns, there’s a defense mechanism waiting to strike here, too. And don’t just assume that you’ll receive a small, momentarily painful prick. The potential consequences are far more grave.
You see, some of the people who’ve come into contact with shells of this kind have actually died. And while you’d think that lethal objects would have the decency to look sinister, it’s not the case here. Shells come in a variety of bright colors, and so this insidious little so-and-so doesn’t wave any obvious red flags.
Then there’s the shells’ obconical shape – which means they’re oblong and end in a spire, in case you were wondering! That’s pretty normal, as are their usual shades. Often, these cones come in white, rose pink or cream hues. So far, so ordinary, and that begs one question: why are they so sought after?
Well, it’s probably all down to some of the shells’ markings – stunning mottled or mosaic patterns in either red or dark brown. They’re super-photogenic, in fact, and great for an Instagram snap. But if you see an attractive shell matching this description on an Australian beach – or any beach, for that matter – be very careful.
Of course, any shell was once a home to something – or still is, in some cases. That’s what makes these particular examples so dangerous. But you may be surprised to hear the identity of the creature causing so much trouble. It’s a little mollusk called Conus geographus – or for those of you who don’t speak Latin, the geography cone snail.
Yes, a snail! But this critter is quite different from the ones you find in your yard after a downpour. A pathologist called L.C.D. Hermitte discovered as much in 1932. You see, he once received a patient whom a cone snail had paralyzed for nine hours straight. Yikes.
Naturally, Hermitte was astonished to learn that a small creature could put an adult man on his back for so long. So, he used his initiative and, taking due precautions, found himself a specimen to dissect. And since then, we’ve discovered a lot about the lives of geography cones, starting with their predatory diet.
For the most part, cone snails are content to munch on things even slow-moving mollusks can catch. That means worms and fellow gastropods are on the menu. But if a snail wants some fast food – well, as fast as it can travel – it has to adapt. And that’s where this creature gets interesting, as a marine biologist called Alan J. Kohn discovered by observing one on the hunt.
Back in 1956, Dr. Kohn watched as one of the members of a species called Conus striatus killed a fish. Yes, really! That sounds as though the food chain has been turned on its head, but it’s true. These snails are actually very effective anglers.
And, sure, snails are renowned for their lack of speed, but geography cones have a workaround: they use their anatomy to catch prey. That’s pretty smart. Still, it’ll make things a lot clearer if we take a closer look at these mighty mollusks. Metaphorically, of course – we’re giving death snails a wide berth in real life, and you should too.
Let’s begin by talking about eyestalks – perhaps the most prominent feature of a snail apart from its shell. But while some species in the Conus genus do possess these features, they’re less important to Conus geographus. Instead, it has an alternative sense organ called a siphon. And a geography cone can not only use this appendage to breathe, but also to detect a prospective meal.
Once a snail finds food, though, how does it eat? Well, common snails use something called a radula, which is somewhat akin to a mouth. Each of the mollusks has a jaw lined with dozens upon dozens of teeth, although thankfully these chompers are incredibly tiny. But even though snails aren’t able to really chew on you, their radulae can easily chop up whatever bite-size treats they can find. And boy, they aren’t fussy.
A hungry snail will scrape up vegetation and feces with its radula – not to mention other mollusks. Yes, it truly is a snail-eat-snail world! And geography cones have radulae, too, although theirs is a little different. For starters, they possess harder jaws that are covered in a substance called chitin. Never heard of it? Well, it’s the same stuff that makes up beetles’ shells – and lots of other things besides.
Even more menacingly, a geography cone’s jaw has a secret weapon. It’s such an effective deterrent, in fact, that these kinds of snails have few predators in the wild. And even if other creatures do decide to hunt down an example of Conus geographus, they need to get past its defensive shell first.
Take crabs, for instance. They may be seafood in the human world, but in their undersea homes they’re predators. And both horseshoe and hermit crabs have hard shells just like the geography cone. That chitin protects the crustaceans from anything even a deadly sea snail can throw at them, although they also have a killer offensive game.
If you’ve ever been nipped by a crab, you know how much it hurts. Yeah, those claws aren’t just for show. They can and will break through a snail’s shell, and if that happens it’s game over for the prey. But Conus geographus can fortunately fight back.
You see, geography cones don’t just have their shells to protect them from clawed predators. Intriguingly, they also have somewhat of a truce with the flower-like coral polyps. Those petals on the polyps are in reality venomous prey-grabbing tendrils that keep a fair few sea creatures at bay, but some – Conus geographus included – actually live among them.
There’s a fancy label for this bond, too. Basically, the snails and coral polyps have what is called a commensalistic relationship, in which one partner gets benefits from the other without giving anything back or causing harm. So, the geography cone receives shelter from the polyps and doesn’t bother the coral in return. If you ask us, that’s a little, um, shellfish… But it seems to work for the coral all the same, and the benefits for the mollusks are clear.
However, none of this explains how a snail or its shell can possibly be dangerous or how it can fish. Well, to clarify that, we have to backtrack a little to the subject of the radula. Remember how we said that the geography cone’s jaw works differently from those of common snails? Well, that’s an understatement.
You see, the cone snail uses an incredibly powerful venom to hunt its prey. This lethal substance is so potent, in fact, that Conus geographus has been given the rather unlikely nickname of the “cigarette.” Why? Well, the joke is that a victim will only have enough time to enjoy one solitary smoke before passing away.
It’s an exaggeration, of course, but it’s not far wrong. The snail’s venom is actually a deadly cocktail with hundreds of different compounds inside. Perhaps the strangest of these is a form of insulin, which us humans tend to produce in our own bodies. So with that in mind, why is it so lethal when it’s administered by a geography cone?
Listen to University of Utah professor Baldomero Olivera, who elaborated on this particular form of the hormone when speaking to The Guardian. In reference to the geography cone’s secret weapon, he said in 2015, “This is a unique type of insulin. It is shorter than any insulin that has been described in any animal. We found it in the venom in large amounts.”
Wondering how insulin can be weaponized? Well, it acts in much the same way in fish as it does in humans: by lowering blood sugar levels. This then slows down the physical responses of schools of potential prey at once to make them easier targets. And then there’s the nervous system response Hermitte initially saw in his paralyzed patient. Yes, while the venom causes instant immobilization in fish, humans aren’t immune, either.
Naturally, though, geography cones don’t aggressively attack humans. Pretty much the only way in which you can get hurt, then, is by picking up a Conus geographus shell. And, alarmingly, there’s no known antidote to its particular venom cocktail. That’s something the geography cone’s prey finds out the hard way.
Basically, Conus geographus catches its victims using either what experts call the “hook-and-line” or the “net” method. What do these entail? Well, researchers Jeffrey S. Cooper, Stephen Hendriksen and Sasha Kapil know more, as they explained in a paper published in 2020.
In their work, snappily titled “Cone Snail Toxicity,” Cooper, Hendriksen and Kapil revealed, “The species that utilize the hook-and-line method use an additional appendage called a proboscis. Within the proboscis is a tooth or harpoon coated with species-specific venom. This proboscis can extend to all parts of the shell and handling. Only a certain part of the cone does not protect from envenomation.”
And the second method of hunting? This, as the specialists revealed, “also involves a venom-covered harpoon [that is] released within the mouth.” They added, “Once a harpoon is engaged, it is discarded. At any time, a cone snail has about 20 harpoons in various stages of growth and development.” Yes, these mollusks are literally spearing their prey!
And while geography cones won’t win any foot races, they can still move quickly when it counts. That’s what scientists at Occidental College in Los Angeles discovered. In fact, during their study, the team found that cone snails have one of the fastest strikes of all creatures on the planet. Crazy, right?
Professor Emanuel Azizi and his colleagues used high-tech videography to observe a species of cone snail called Conus catus. Thanks to that equipment, it was revealed that this particular kind of snail’s harpoon hit at speeds comparable to a bullet! But that prompts another question: why is the attack so fast when the snail’s prey is much slower? Well, this is something Azizi and co are hoping to work out.
In a press release published on Science Daily in 2019, Azizi was quoted as saying, “By evaluating the anatomy and functional limits of these structures [found in the cone snail], we hope to uncover insights into how they evolve and how their design could inspire new forms for robots or medical devices.” But the cone snail’s speed isn’t the only feature that has the potential to revolutionize medicine.
There’s also the way in which the mollusks regulate their venom. This is of particular interest to University of Vienna biochemist Markus Muttenthaler, who explained in a 2019 press statement, “Cone snails can control their venom composition depending if they hunt or defend themselves.” And, apparently, when the snail defends itself, it uses toxins geared towards inflicting pain. Basically, it could teach us a lot about how our own bodies react to certain compounds.
Muttenthaler revealed how, saying, “Conotoxins have revolutionized pain research… Their extraordinary potency and selectivity enable us to study the individual subtypes of ion channels, which was not possible before.” And the plethora of compounds that make up cone snail venom may hold the key to untold scientific breakthroughs.
For starters, studies have shown that parts of the venom exceed morphine’s power as an analgesic by up to 10,000 times. But whereas that drug’s addictive, no one’s ever wanted another shot of snail toxin as far as we know. It has none of the other associated side effects of morphine, either. And, in fact, there’s already a conotoxin-made painkiller in use today.
Yes, the United States Food and Drug Administration has approved a medicine called Prialt to treat extreme pain. Muttenthaler explained, “It is directly administered to the spinal cord where it specifically blocks a pain transmitting ion channel subtype. It is 1,000 times more potent than morphine and triggers no symptoms of dependence, which is a big problem with opioid drugs.”
Muttenthaler added that researchers were now trying to target nerve endings in other parts of the body. “This would enable us to intercept the pain signal before it is transmitted into the central nervous system,” he said. And other scientists similarly believe that conotoxins could be a big step forward for medicine.
The Linnean Society of London has certainly sung the praises of the cone snail’s deadly weapon. In an article published on the society’s website in 2017, it noted, “This effective analgesic could be used for treating chronic pain found in patients suffering from cancer, arthritis, diabetes and AIDS.” And the venom cocktail could even help manage other diseases.
For example, one of the compounds in the venom, a substance called conantokin G, shows promise as a treatment for epilepsy. Others are possible weapons in the fight against brain disorders – namely Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In fact, there are so many chemicals inside the geography cone’s toxin that scientists have barely scratched the surface of their capabilities.
That means cone snails could be very important for our future. And the experts have recognized this, too. In 2008 they even issued a request to the governments of countries with tropical climates, asking them to pay closer attention to protecting coral reefs and managing the shell trade. Before that, though, Harvard University’s Eric Chivian had already campaigned on behalf of Conus geographus.
In a paper published in the journal Science in 2003, Chivian said of geography cones, “To lose these species would be a self-destructive act of unparalleled folly. Tropical cone snails may contain the largest and most clinically important pharmacopeia of any [group of animals] in nature.” Here’s hoping, then, that Conus geographus continues to thrive – although you still shouldn’t pick that shell up.
And you can also learn a thing or two from Hunter Lane. He once spied a flash of bright color in the sand, making the solitary beach exploration he was on suddenly far more exciting. And although the electric blue creature Hunter spotted appeared to be a kind of jellyfish, it was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. So, the curious young man naturally scooped up the mysterious animal to show his parents. But as it turns out, that’s the very last action Hunter should have taken.
Given the creature’s striking color and strange shape, though, it’s not hard to see why it drew Hunter’s attention. The animal’s stunning blue hue cuts a stark contrast against golden sandy beaches, after all. And the outlandish creatures must have astonished quite a few unsuspecting Texans when they began washing up on the state’s shores.
But it’s not just the alluring shade of one of these mystery lifeforms that interests beach-goers. Its shape also makes it look like something akin to a dragon – and naturally arouses the curiosity of passers-by. Bizarre wing-like projections that end in darker tips protrude from the side of its body in several different places, too.
So, just like Hunter had, many people may initially think that these things are a species previously unknown to science. And while experts are aware of these creatures, the animals are exceptionally rare – and can be incredibly dangerous. That’s why visitors must heed the advice of wildlife professionals regarding Texas’ beach invaders.
In fact, the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS) has even issued a warning about the creatures. And according to the organization, if you do see any electric blue wildlife on beaches, you shouldn’t approach them under any circumstances. So stay away and don’t touch them – because these spectacular visitors pose more of a threat than you might think.
Unfortunately, though, Hunter didn’t get that message – and had no idea what he’d found along the shore that day. The seven-year-old boy made his amazing discovery on one of the beaches that form part of Padre Island National Seashore. He was visiting the locale with his parents, Trey and Leah Lane, in May 2020 when he spotted the creatures.
Padre Island officials report that Hunter was one of the first people on the beach to find the rare animals, too. But what was the child combing the beach for in the first place? Well, Trey told CNN it was his son’s passion for aquatic animals that led him to the discovery.
“Hunter loves sea creatures and thought he had found a blue button jellyfish,” Trey later informed the TV news network. It was an easy mistake to make, too. Blue button jellyfish not only share a similar color – hence their name – but also grow to roughly the same size as the mysterious creature that Hunter found.
That’s why Hunter picked up the creature – thankfully using one of his toys – and took it to show his father. On the trip back, though, the inquisitive boy must have realized that he’d stumbled upon something else entirely. “He proclaimed to me that he had discovered a new species,” Trey recalled.
Clearly, then, Hunter was delighted with his find. In fact, Leah recalled that her son “really wanted to touch” the creature because of its squishy-looking appearance. Even at his age, though, Hunter was well-informed enough to know that would have been a mistake. He wisely decided against petting the enchanting animal.
Incidentally, PINS later identified the creature as the Glaucus atlanticus – or blue dragon. So it wasn’t a jellyfish at all, as Hunter had first assumed. What are they, then? Well, scientifically, the creatures are mollusks, which puts them in the same group as clams, octopuses and even common garden snails. And while that may not sound particularly threatening, just wait until you hear what they can do.
You see, creatures in the mollusk family are invertebrates, meaning they have soft bodies and no backbones. Some of them, such as snails, have evolved to use shells to protect their vulnerable forms. Blue dragons, on the other hand, belong to a group of sea slugs – called Nudibranchia, or “naked gills” – that never develop shells.
The name is a reference to the fringed feelers or horn-like appendages that commonly grow on the nudibranch’s back. Although they look akin to protective spines or tentacles, in reality, they’re external gills and used for breathing. These mollusks do have tentacles, though.
The nudibranch’s tentacles are called rhinophores. Rhinophores commonly grow in pairs on a mollusk’s head, and they act as sensory organs. That is to say, nudibranchs use them to feel for and detect potential food sources, which are generally responsible for their usually lurid pigmentation.
Yes, a blue dragon’s bright body color is typical of nudibranchs, which are generally vivid hues. Although there are a few drabber specimens, their stunning colors are a result of their diet. You see, these creatures are often found among vibrant deep-sea life such as coral and anemones, which serve as their snacks.
So, alongside the many advantages the nudibranch’s diet provides, it also allows them to blend into their surroundings. But don’t let their alluring pigments deceive you; these slugs are aggressive hunters. In fact, they’re predators that feast on prey lots of other creatures would rather avoid – and for good reason. That even includes their own species.
Considering the blue dragons’ voracious appetite and intimidating name, then, you might imagine them as deep-sea giants. But if that’s the case, prepare for a surprise: blue dragons reach just three centimeters in length on average. Yet while the sea slugs are small and can’t breathe fire, they live up to their namesake in many other regards.
One reason blue dragons are draconic in nature as well as in name is the way they move. With the finger-like appendages on their sides, the swimming slugs look like they’re flying through the water. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this, though, is that blue dragons swim upside down.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, these elegant creatures have stomach sacs that fill with gas to assist their floating. And the blue dragons’ bright colors are actually on their underside, so they have to flip over to display them. This way, any predators passing from above will spot the hues and realize that sea slug is off the menu.
Meanwhile, a blue dragon’s darker body portion will conceal it from predators lurking below. Now, you’re probably wondering why creatures usually living in tropical waters were washing up on the beaches of Texas. After all, they’re clearly not native to the area. This made their appearance all the more puzzling.
The creatures are usually found in the oceans around Australia, South Africa and Mozambique. Yet this is not the first time that they’ve arrived on American shores. In fact, Florida Today reported that there have been similar reports of blue dragon sightings on U.S. soil in recent years. There was a spate of them washing ashore in 2017, for instance.
Yes, the rare sea slugs surprised beach visitors at Cape Canaveral with their unexpected arrival. Florida Today reported that several people were either less wise or less fortunate than Hunter, though. You see, officials with Brevard County Ocean Rescue said some witnesses had touched the blue dragons – and learned why their name was so apt.
Yet the enchanting color and appealing shape of the blue dragons have earned them other, less intimidating nicknames. Some people know the creatures as sea swallows or blue angels, for instance. However, these monikers only further conceal the slugs’ more devilish qualities. Yet humans have been aware of these creatures for centuries.
In 1777 explorers encountered the blue dragon back in 1777 and recorded their experience. A live specimen wasn’t caught until almost a hundred years later, though. That achievement went to the crew of a famous expedition that set out from London, England, in 1872. The name of the much-vaunted vessel was the HMS Challenger.
The Challenger was turned into a seafaring laboratory designed to explore the ocean and catalog what it found. The team’s journey turned up a massive 4,700 species previously unknown to science – and they even took specimens. One such find was a 1.2cm blue dragon, which scientists preserved with glycerine.
The Challenger’s blue dragon was later donated to the National History Museum in England – where it’s remained ever since. So what exactly makes these beautiful creatures potentially dangerous? Well, their garish color is a hint. To answer in full, though, we have to backtrack a little and look more closely at the animals’ feeding habits.
Remember when we said that blue dragons make some questionable digestive choices? Well, jellyfish and other venomous sea critters are below them in the food chain. And nudibranchs have developed a method of not only sustaining themselves, but also using their diet as a means of defense. Specifically, they eat the toxin of creatures many times their size.
Blue dragons even target cnidarians such as the Portuguese man o’ war, which is often incorrectly mistaken for a jellyfish. That’s likely because the Portuguese man o’ war and the jellyfish are both collections of lifeforms that live and act as one, known as siphonophores. The Portuguese man o’ war does have something in common with its jelly counterpart, though: an array of stinging tentacles.
These tentacles are one of a Portuguese man o’ war’s four lifeforms, and they’re coated with toxic nematocysts. A man o’ war uses them to kill or stun prey. But a blue dragon isn’t deterred by this armory; it’s immune to the sting and just sees the tentacles as a potential meal. That’s where the slug’s flotation sac comes into play.
So a blue dragon swims up to its prey and latches onto it with its feet. Then it feeds on the nematocysts, drinking up the toxin and absorbing it into its own body. The slug stores the biggest nematocysts in the ends of its “fingers,” more accurately described as cerata. And, in conjunction with its diet, this behavior gives the blue dragon its color.
The slug then uses its borrowed toxin to defend itself against predators – but it packs an added punch. Because the toxin is concentrated in one spot, it’s even more powerful than when the man o’ war employs it. And this is the reason why you should avoid touching blue dragons: they can introduce you to a world of pain.
So, as a result of Hunter’s find on Padre Island, PINS put the boy’s photos up on its Facebook page in May 2020. It accompanied the pictures with a wise warning for those who might be tempted by these colorful creatures. The post introduced them with the ominous words, “Here there be dragons.”
PINS continued, “Blue dragons are very small, generally only three centimeters. But don’t let their size fool you, they have a defense worthy of the name dragon.” It went on to say how visitors should look but not touch. “If you see a dragon in the park, be amazed as they are a rare find, but also keep your distance!”
Both Leah and Hunter admitted that touching the blue dragon was initially tempting. Hunter’s mom later told TV station KSAT, “Hunter really wanted to touch it. And I don’t blame him, I did too as they look very soft and squishy. But we discussed that since we have no clue what they are, we [had] better not.”
Leah continued, “After thinking about it, he even said, ‘He might be like the poison dart frog, mom, he is kind of brightly colored, which is a warning.’ Smart kid.” But of course, there’s still the mystery of why the blue dragons have been arriving on Padre Island in the first place.
After all, Trey informed CNN that until now he hadn’t seen any blue dragons in the 30 years he’d been visiting Padre Island. He’s not the only person who has been discovering the stunning slugs for the first time, either. Jamie Kennedy, who works as a spokeswoman for PINS, said it was a new experience for her, too.
Kennedy revealed that she’s worked at PINS for two years and that this is her first time seeing blue dragons. There has been an increase in their appearances over recent years, though, as the PINS’ Facebook page proves. It had even uploaded some pictures of the sea slugs along with info about them back in 2016.
“A lot of people are finding them lately,” Kennedy remarked. But while they’re certainly rare, she had a theory as to why so many of them were appearing across Padre Island. She thought a large group of them had become beached at once and scattered across the shore. And other experts concurred.
According to KSAT, another PINS spokesperson agreed. They said, “A lot of people are finding them lately. That will often happen with animals that a bunch will wash up at the same time.” Another wildlife expert confirmed this and elaborated on the subject in an interview with TV station KVEO in May 2020.
David Hicks from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley told KVEO it tended to be all or nothing with blue dragon sightings. The Director for the School of Marine Sciences said, “It’s pretty rare. We don’t see a lot of them, but they are reported from Texas. That community of organisms… they kind of go around in masses of water. If you see one, you see 1,000 of them.”