How snails breathe through snorkels on land

Shells with a tube counterintuitively sealed at the top have overlooked powers

shells of Alycaeus conformis snail

COUNTERINTUITIVE SNORKELS  Little tubes (arrows) following the crease between whorls let these small Asian Alycaeus snails breathe when hiding in their shells — even though tube ends are sealed.

B. Páll-Gergely

Microscope work may finally have solved the puzzle of Asian snails’ “useless” snorkels.

The small Alycaeidae land snails of Asia grow what looks like a tiny breathing tube curling partway along the outside of their shells. Similar tubes let some other land snails breathe when a little blast-door operculum shuts the main opening of their shells. But in the 350 or so Asian species of Alycaeidae, the supposed breathing tube’s outside end is sealed.

Researchers decades ago wondered if the tube had teensy pores or if it broke open in the wild. The answer is neither, malacologist Barna Páll-Gergely of Shinshu University in Matsumoto, Japan, and his colleagues report July 13 in Biology Letters. Electron microscope images now reveal minute feeder channels branching down from the tube to the bottom whorl of the shell, opening in vanishingly small slits to outside air.

The Alycaeus conformis snail’s roughly 50 air channels each squeeze down to about 16 micrometers in diameter, far too small for parasites such as slug mites to invade, he says. Also these microchannels with slits might minimize water loss during hot weather. The Alycaeidae have evolved, Páll-Gergely says, the “most complex gas-exchange system” yet discovered among snail snorkels.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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