New Deep-Sea Snails Are Nature’s Own Punk Rockers

The spikes on one hardcore species inspired scientists to name it after Joe Strummer of the Clash, who was also an ardent environmentalist

The world's six known punked out snail species, which have mohawk-like spikes, acidic-dyed psychedelic colors and hardcore shells that are falling apart. (Shannon Johnson (c) 2014 MBARI)
smithsonian.com

Scientists are pop culture fans too, and they sometimes name new species after their favorite artists. A “bootylicious” fly pays homage to Beyoncé, a new mushroom bears a SpongeBob-inspired moniker and Lady Gaga has an entire fern genus named in her honor. Now Joe Strummer, the late punk rocker from the Clash, joins that list, thanks to a spikey-shelled sea snail recently discovered in the ocean’s depths.

The species in question, Alviniconcha strummeri, lives in heaped clusters around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. The vents provide a bit of life-giving warmth in an otherwise frigid environment, and many exotic and outlandish species spend their entire lives gathered on them or within a few inches of their boiling outpourings. A. strummeri’s strange shell is dyed a myriad of colors due to chemicals found around the vent, and it sometimes features Mohawk-like spikes, encouraging the punk rock connection.

Researchers previously lumped A. strummeri in with A. hessleri, a similar species that has been found in deep-sea locales around the Pacific, ranging from 11,500 to 1,150 feet deep. Based on looks alone, those species cannot be easily distinguished from one another. But A. strummeri and four other similarly punky species are indeed unique, according to the international team that recently described them in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

To make the clarification, the researchers visited about two dozen ocean spots in the Indo-Pacific—the waters far east, west and north of Australia. They used both remote- and human-operated underwater vehicles to scoop up snail samples, collecting 200 specimens in total. Unfortunately, none of the snails survived the trip to the surface, but the researchers could still use the remains for their work.

The snails' natural habitat, on the deep sea floor. Photo: Robert Vrijenhoek, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Research Institution

The snails’ varied looks, however, seemed to be interchangeable; from the sample they collected, the researchers couldn’t find any markings that were distinct to any given species. The snails’ genetics, however, told a different story. Mitochondrial DNA analysis revealed that what was previously considered a single species was in fact six.

The team decided to go with the punk rock hat tip for one of the species partly because of its crazy looks. But the Clash reference is also an acknowledgement of the fact that Joe Strummer, despite his uncouth stage persona, was an ardent environmentalist throughout his lifetime. He helped to establish Future Forests (now the Carbon Neutral Company), a group dedicated to planting trees to help offset global warming, and he created a forest on the Isle of Skye to neutralize the greenhouse gas emissions that resulted from his music tours and record distributions.

The researchers add that more intriguing, uncanny creatures likely await discovery in the “woefully under-sampled” deep sea. So it could be that Sid Vicious, Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry will soon join the underwater punk-rock snail scene. 

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