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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Neon Snail

Intruder alert! Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have provided the first details about the mysterious flashes of dazzling bioluminescent light produced by a little-known sea snail.

Dimitri Deheyn and Nerida Wilson were surprised by their studies of a species of “clusterwink,” a small marine snail typically found at rocky shorelines. Such snails were known to produce light, but the researchers discovered that rather than emitting a focused beam, the animal uses its usually opaque, yellowish shell to scatter bright green bioluminescent light in all directions.

“It’s rare for any bottom-dwelling snails to produce bioluminescence,” Wilson says. “So it’s even more amazing that this snail has a shell that maximizes the signal so efficiently.”

Deheyn says the luminous displays could be a deterrent to ward off potential predators by creating an illusion of a larger animal. The researchers documented how the snail set off its glow, which they likened to a burglar alarm going off, when confronted by a crab or a shrimp.

Deheyn says such adaptations are of keen interest in optics and bioengineering research and development.

—Mario C. Aguilera, ’89