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Ancient attack marks show ocean predators got scarier

Holes in shells reveal predators that kill by drilling just kept getting bigger

4:12pm, June 15, 2017
moon snail

KILLER DRILLERS  Predators such as moon snails (Naticarius orientalis shown) that kill by drilling through other animals’ shells offer a rare chance to test an idea about the power of enemies.

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In pumped-up sequels for scary beach movies, each predator is bigger than the last. Turns out that predators in real-world oceans may have upsized over time, too.

Attack holes in nearly 7,000 fossil shells suggest that drilling predators have outpaced their prey in evolving ever larger bodies and weapons, says paleontologist Adiël Klompmaker of the University of California, Berkeley. The ability to drill through a seashell lets predatory snails, octopuses, one-celled amoeba-like forams and other hungry beasts reach the soft meat despite prey armor. Millions of years later, CSI Paleontology can use these drill holes to test big evolutionary ideas about the power of predators.

“Predators got bigger — three words!” is Klompmaker’s bullet point for the work. Over the last 450 million years or so, drill holes have grown in average size from 0.35 millimeters to 3.25 millimeters, Klompmaker and an international team report June 16 in Science. Larger holes generally mean larger attackers, the researchers say, after looking at 556 modern drillers and the size of their attack holes.

Prey changed over millennia, too, but there’s no evidence for a shift in body size. The ratio of drill-hole size to prey size became 67 times greater over time, the researchers conclude.

It’s “the rise of the bullies,” says coauthor Michal Kowalewski of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

All these data on shell holes allow researchers to test a key part of what’s called the escalation hypothesis. In 1987, Geerat Vermeij proposed a top-down view of evolutionary change, where predators, competitors and other enemies growing ever more powerful drive the biggest changes in their victims. This wasn’t so much an arms race between predators trading tit for tat with their prey as a long domination of underdogs repeatedly stomped by disproportionate menace. (Unless the prey somehow flips the relationship and can do deadly harm in return.) Vermeij, now at the University of California, Davis, and others have drawn on escalating threats to explain prey evolutionary innovations in thick shells, spines and spikes, mobility, burrowing lifestyles and toxins.

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Bigger and bigger

Drill holes (example from a shell about 4 million years old from the Netherlands, left) tended to get larger in relation to the size of the attacked shell as the periods in geologic history marched by (graph, right). This trend and other ways of analyzing drill holes suggest predators outpaced their prey in body size.

One aspect of escalation scenarios has been especially hard to test: the idea that predators can become more dangerous and a stronger evolutionary force over time. Drill holes suggesting bigger, more powerful attackers allowed a rare way of exploring the idea, Klompmaker says. He now reads the deep history as showing predators escalated in size, but prey didn’t.

The energetics worked out, in large part, because early hard-shelled prey called brachiopods — a bit like clams but with one shell-half larger than the other — became scarcer over time, while clams and their fellow mollusks grew abundant. Mollusks typically have more flesh inside their shells than brachiopods, and prey overall grew denser on the ocean bottom. Killer drillers, able to dine at this buffet, could thus support bigger bodies even when prey size wasn’t rising, too.

Prey don’t make drilling easy, Klompmaker says. An hour’s work gets a typical modern predatory snail only about 0.01 to 0.02 millimeters deeper into a mollusk shell. So finally striking lunch could take days of effort with the thickest shells. And that’s with specialty equipment: A snail alternates grinding away using a hard, rasplike driller and then switching to its accessory boring organ that releases acids and enzymes, weakening the drilling spot for the next bout.

The role of such animal clashes in evolution has been notoriously difficult to study, says marine ecologist Nick Dulvy of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. Nutrients, climate and other factors that don’t swim away into the blue are much easier to measure. Even after a robust century of ecological study, “the discoveries that otters propped up kelp forests, triggerfishes garden coral reefs, and wolves and cougars create lush diverse watersheds are comparatively recent,” Dulvy says. Until the new drill-hole study, he could think of only one earlier batch of evidence (crabs preying on mollusks) for the long rise of predators as an evolutionary force.

The story from drill holes, says Vermeij, is “very convincing.”  


A.A. Klompmaker et al. Increase in predator-prey size ratios throughout the Phanerozoic history of marine ecosystems. Science. Vol. 356, June 16, 2017, p. 1178. doi: 10.1126/science.aam7468.

Further Reading

G.J. Vermeij. On escalation. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Vol. 41, May 2013, p. 1. doi: 10.1146/annurev-earth-050212-124123.

W. Stolzenburg. When life got hard. Science News. Vol. 138, August 25, 1990, p. 120.

S. Milius. Hunchbacked conchs jump at the smell of danger. Science News. Vol. 188, November 14, 2015, p. 4.

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