Why The Cone Snail Is One Of The Ocean’s Deadliest Creatures

Published May 7, 2018

The innocuous-looking cone snail lives in a beautiful shell prized by beachcombers. Inside, however, they hold a deadly secret.

Imagine yourself scuba diving in the beautiful, crystal-clear tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean. You watch a school of clownfish swim by before they hide in some anemones along a coral reef. You know to avoid anemones because of their poisonous, wispy tentacles. A sting from an anemone may hurt, but it probably won’t kill you.

What you may not realize is that an even more dangerous sea creature lurks just beneath the sand, waiting for the right moment to strike. If you disturb or frighten a cone snail, you could die a very quick death and hardly feel any pain.

Attack Of The Cone Snails

The innocuous-looking sea creature lives in a beautiful shell made of colorful brown, black and white patterns that are often prized by beachcombers. However, their outer beauty hides a deadly inner secret.

Cone Snail

Wikimedia CommonsThis shell looks so beautiful, yet it hides a deadly weapon that can kill you.

A cone snail, like most snails, is slow. However, its attack is swift and potent.

These snails are predatory and use a sophisticated detection system to find prey that swims by. Cone snails feast on fish, marine worms or other snails if food is scarce. Once the nose of a cone snail senses food nearby, it deploys a sharp proboscis, or a needle-like protrusion, from its mouth. You may not even feel the sting of the proboscis because the attack is instantaneous and the venom injected into your body has analgesic, pain-killing properties.

The lack of pain in your body is what makes the cone snail so deadly. You don’t even know what hits you. All you know is that you saw a pretty shell, picked it up, and assumed your diving gloves offered strong enough protection. Unfortunately for divers, the proboscis of a cone snail can penetrate gloves because the snail’s harpoon-like weapon are made for the tough outer skin of fish.

Watching a cone snail attack is a thing of efficiency. The proboscis not only delivers the toxins, but it allows the snail to draw the fish towards it with a sharp barb on the end. Once the fish is completely paralyzed, the cone snail expands its mouth and swallows it whole.

Humans And Cone Snails

Cone Snail

U.S. National Institutes of Health A cone snail engulfing its paralyzed prey.

Luckily for you, humans aren’t very tasty or digestible to cone snails. The only reason humans come in contact with them is if someone steps on a cone snail, startles them when diving, or picks up a shell with a creature still in it. Also fortunately for us, deaths are rare. A 2004 report in the journal Nature attributed about 30 human deaths to cone snails. Of the 500 species of poisonous cone snails, just a few are venomous enough to kill you. The geography cone is the deadliest, with more than 100 toxins in its small, six-inch body.

Just because human deaths are uncommon, it doesn’t mean you should throw away caution.

A few microliters of cone snail toxin is powerful enough to kill 10 people. Once the poison enters your system, you may not feel symptoms for a few minutes or days. Instead of pain, you could feel numbness or tingling.

There is no anti-venom for cone snails. The only thing doctors can do is prevent the toxins from spreading and try to remove the toxins from the injection site.

Despite its reputation as a killer, the cone snail isn’t all bad. Scientists are constantly studying the snail’s venom to isolate its painkilling properties, as substances in the cone snail’s venom can be adapted for painkilling drugs.

Some chemicals are 10,000 times stronger than morphine, but they don’t have morphine’s addictive side-effects. Someday, we may see cone snail farms that pharmaceutical companies use to produce the latest painkiller.

Meanwhile, watch where you step when you’re at the beach and be careful when picking up that pretty shell. That simple, instinctive movement with your hand or foot could be your last.

Next read about 24 other deadly and dangerous animals that would mess up any human. Then read about why mako shark should scare you as much as great whites.

William DeLong
William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith. He thanks you for reading his content.