Purple sea fans that sway gently in the shallow reef areas of the Dutch Caribbean Islands are often equipped with passengers – small white and orange snails. These snails, which are called Flamingo Tongue snails (Cyphoma gibbosum), not only live on gorgonians but actually feed on them. They consume the living tissue of the sea fan as they move across it; their “foot”, or radula, secretes chemicals that break down soft coral tissue into nutrients that the snail can digest. The snail typically moves on to the next sea fan before too much damage is done, and the soft coral regenerates the damaged areas. Interestingly the snail does not digest the toxins of the sea fan but stores them in its tissues and uses them as a defense mechanism against predators.
While the Flamingo Tongue Snail has historically been abundant throughout the Caribbean, there are now concerns over its declining population. The main issue is divers and snorkelers that take them as souvenirs because of the beautiful shell. What many do not realize is that the snail’s beautiful orange-yellow spots are part of the animal’s living tissue, and therefore disappear when the animal dies. All that is left is a plain white shell. So next time you have the chance to explore one of the Dutch Caribbean’s beautiful marine protected areas, please bring back only memories and photographs.