Finicky snails provide new clues to the evolution of coastal ecosystems

Whether sauted in wine or steamed in the shell, mussels have long been a favorite of seafood lovers. For most people, the type of mussel served isn't important - as long as there are plenty of them on the plate.

But in the wild, it's a different matter. According to a new study in the journal Science, when it comes to preying on mussels, marine snails are often pickier than people.

The study, led by scientists from Stanford University, focused on a species of mussel that California snails love to eat but Oregon snails won't come near. The scientists discovered that this culinary preference is probably an inherited trait - the result of generations of genetic and geographic isolation along the shores of the Pacific.

The discovery of finicky snail populations on the Oregon and Washington coast could have profound implications for managing marine ecosystems worldwide, the researchers added.

''If you go down the coast from Canada to Mexico, you will find species that individually look the same but actually have undergone genetic adaptations to local conditions,'' said George N. Somero, the David and Lucile Packard Professor in Marine Science at Stanford and co-author of the Science study. ''As a result, a species that's relatively unimportant in one habitat may turn out to be very important in another.''

Channeled whelks

The new findings, published in the May 16 issue of Science, were based on experiments conducted at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, where researchers analyzed the eating habits of the channeled whelk (Nucella canaliculata) - an inch-long snail commonly found in coastal waters from Alaska to California. Whelks are voracious consumers of mussels, despite being much smaller than their prey.

''A whelk drills through the shell of a mussel using its file-like tongue - the radula - and acid secretions,'' said Eric Sanford, lead author of the Science study. ''When the hole is drilled through, a tu

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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