Sugar Shock: The Cone Snail Gives Its Prey a Lethal Dose of Insulin Before Eating Them

by Owen James Burke

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Photograph: Design Pics Inc.

If you’ve ever wandered the beaches of the tropical Indo-Pacific, you’ve probably come across this ornate shell of the cone snail (genus Conus), maybe even slipped it into your pocket and brought it home. Like me, you probably placed it in a glass bowl amidst other collected shells on your coffee table and never thought to look up the species, simply appreciating its inherent beauty. Fair enough. What may come to your surprise is that the creature that once occupied it, itself equally as decorated as its mobile home, is also just as venomous. The secret compound? Insulin, suggests research from a report last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists have been stymied as to precisely why the prey of the cone snail appear “drunk” right before they’re entombed by the grizzly gastropod. Now, it appears that this toxic snail which is mostly found in the Western Indo-Pacific (though there are 600 species worldwide) is the only species known to science — aside from humans — that uses insulin to kill. (Back in 2008, a man tried to off his well-to-do wife with insulin injections, according to a NYT article. The snail, however, with its purer intent, has been far more successful.)

The cone snail’s harpoon, which delivers the lethal dose, is mostly employed for predation, yet the mechanism, which can fire in any direction, can also serve as an effective mode of defense. Humans, take warning — the harpoon of the cone snail is like a hypodermic needle and can not only penetrate skin but even gloves. If you happen to come across one of these alluring critters alive, you’d be best suited to leave them be. And, if you’re picking one up that appears to be empty, it wouldn’t hurt to double-check. The geographic cone snail (Conus geographus), the largest and most venomous of the species, is so fatal to humans that the species has been nicknamed “the cigarette snail,” because one square is about all the time you have before you perish after an injection.

Watch a cone snail deliver the lethal blow before devouring the dazed fish:

Like many other toxins found in nature, the compound found in the cone snail may hold promise for future pharmacological purposes, though further research is required. Read more on NatGeoOJB

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