In the South Pacific Society Islands, more than 50 species of tree snail were wiped out after the rosy wolf snail is introduced in the 1970s. However, one snail species managed to evade this predatory snail due to an interesting evolutionary quirk.
Scientists try to shed light on this mystery by attaching the world's smallest computer to the native tree snail to better understand how they managed to survive a vicious predator.
Their study yields new insights into the survival of white-shelled Partula hyalina, which is important to the Tahitian culture and to the biologists who are studying evolution.
Mass Extinction of Snails in the South Pacific Society Islands
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Society Islands are a group of islands that support hundreds of endemic animal species. The giant African land snail was introduced to the islands in hopes to cultivate as a food source but has turned into a major pest.
Agricultural scientists thought that introducing rosy wolf snail to the islands in 1974 would solve this problem. However, this new snail species were not as sweet as its name sound.
According to Michigan News, University of Michigan's school paper, the rosy wolf snail started a mass extinction in the snail species in the islands in which almost 61 known snail species native to the islands easily became the prey of the vicious snail. Partula hyalina was only one of the five snail species that survived the mass extinction in the islands.
P. hyalina was dubbed as the "Darwin finches of the snail world" for evading the attacks of the rosy wolf snail. Diarmaid ó Foighil, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, said that the endemic tree snails have never encountered as vicious as the rosy wolf snail before.
Scientists believe that P. hyalina's white shell may have something to do with it. To test their theory, they attached a tiny computer on the snail to track the light exposure levels that P. hyalina and rosy wolf snails experience in a typical day.
The World's Smallest Computer
The team's co-leader David Blaauw said that their experiment on the native tree snail had yielded unique results that nobody had been able to obtain, Cnet reported.
In their study, entitled "Millimeter-sized smart sensors reveal that a solar refuge protects tree snail Partula hyalina from extirpation," published in the journal Communications Biology, researchers found that the white shell of P. hyalina reflected rather than absorbed the sunlight radiation levels that could kill their darker shell counterparts.
The team tracked the light exposure levels of both snails in a typical day, which led UM engineers to create the world's smallest computer, called the Michigan Micro Mote.
The M3 system had an energy harvester that allows it to recharge using tiny solar cells. The team did not directly attach it to the shells of P. hyalina on the island of Tahiti but instead attached it to the top and underside of the leaves where the native tree snail stays.
Researchers would then download the data from the M3 system and found that the snail is routinely exposed to higher solar radiation levels in the forest edge than those levels that their predator could survive.
"The M3 really opens up the window of what we can do with invertebrate behavioral ecology and we're just at the foothills of those possibilities," ó Foighil said in the university's news release.
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