Explore in depth: the iron-armored snail | oceans

A golden snail with an iron-footed scale looks like a sci-fi creature. But in a few remote areas of the Indian Ocean, these snails are very real.

“It looks like an armored knight crawling on the deep sea floor,” says Julia Siegwart, a biologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt and one of the only people to see a live, scaly-footed snail.chrysanthemum chrysomalon)also known as sea pangolin.

The habitat of snails is severe. They live several miles below the ocean’s surface on burning hydrothermal vents, which are inundated with toxic chemicals and can reach temperatures in excess of 300°C (572°F).

The ocean is one of the world’s last truly wild spaces. It teems with fascinating species that sometimes seems to border on the absurd, from fish that look up through transparent heads to golden snails with iron armour. We know more about deep space than deep oceans, and science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the rich variety of life in the depths.

As mining companies push to industrialise the sea floor and global leaders continue to squabble over how to protect the high seas, a new Guardian Seascape series will profile some of the most recently discovered weird, wonderful, majestic, ridiculous, hardcore and mind-blowing creatures. They reveal how much there is still to learn about the least known environment on Earth – and how much there is to protect. 


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The ocean is one of the last wild spaces in the world. They are teeming with fascinating species that sometimes seem to border on absurdity, from fish that peer through the translucent heads to golden snails with iron armor. We know more about deep space than the deep oceans, and science is just beginning to scratch the surface of the rich diversity of life in the depths.

Mining companies also pay for seabed manufacturing Global leaders continue Quarrel over how to protect the high seas, the new Guardian Seascape series will feature some of the latest bizarre, fantastic, majestic, ridiculous, hardened and mind-blowing creatures. They reveal how much more remains to be known about Earth’s lesser-known environment – and how much it needs to be protected.

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Snails’ bodies and entire lifestyles revolve around bacteria growing inside a special sac in the throat, which converts the chemicals flowing from the openings into energy and thus provides all the snail’s food.

To keep microbes well-fed, scaly-footed snails have developed massive gills to absorb oxygen and chemicals from seawater, then transport them through the bloodstream and a very wide heart. A human heart of equal proportions would be the size of our heads.

In 2019, scientists concluded that the scales on the snail’s feet do not protect against a predator attack but rather to protect Avoid the toxic threat It comes from within. Bacteria hidden in a scaly snail’s throat release sulfur as a waste product, a snail-killing product (a common active ingredient in slugs and snails’ pellets).

The internal structure of their scales acts as tiny exhaust pipes, drawing dangerous sulfur away from the snails’ soft tissues and depositing it as a harmless iron-based compound outside.

Although they have evolved many strange adaptations to survive in the vents, the scaly-footed snails did not depend on humans who showed an interest in their habitat. All three locations they live in – an area of ​​less than 0.025 km² (0.01 square miles), which can fit together inside St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City Deep sea mining objectives.

Four pictures of a snail peeling from different sides
The scaly snail, known as the sea pangolin, has been added to the IUCN Red List due to the threat from deep-sea mining. Photo: Chong Chen / IUCN

Mining companies seek gold, silver, and other precious or rare metals deposited in the rock walls of black smoker chimneys. If their small areas of habitat are damaged or destroyed, scaly foot snails will soon disappear.

That’s why Sigwart and her team set out to evaluate the condition of these rare animals and eventually added the scaly-footed snail to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature as an endangered species.

“It’s an incredibly powerful communication tool,” she says. “When you say that a species is in danger, everyone in the world understands that.”

The scaly snail was the first species in the world to be listed as threatened due to deep-sea mining, but there are now several deep-sea mollusks that experts have assessed and added to the global endangered list.

Of the 184 endemic species that live only in the vents, from the giant oyster to the mysterious snail named after Clash’s Joe Stromer, Only 25 are not considered in danger from extinction.

Siegwart explains that these species remain relatively safe, as they live in vent fields where there is an outright ban on any future development of deep-sea mining. This includes marine protected areas in the territorial waters of Canada and around the Azores.

Most of the other species live in hydrothermal vents on the high seas, which are extraterritorial and therefore less protected and more open to mining exploration.

“These are Red List assessments that reflect the status and risks to the entire species and the potential for them to actually go extinct and be lost entirely,” Siegwart says, “and nobody wants that.”

For Sigwart, these unusual slugs brilliantly illustrate how evolution is all about being good enough to get by. “It shows us the strange and twisted paths that life can take in order to adapt and survive,” she says.