From sea butterfly to sea worm to barge foot, a bizarre cast of characters vie for the public’s affection in a shellfish of the year contest.
German researchers are asking people around the world to vote for their favorite creature among a list of five nominees. The winner will have their genome sequenced, with scientists extracting DNA to learn more about its evolution. This is a significant prize for a group of animals that remains largely unexplored genetically, with only a few dozen fully sequenced genomes.
“Mollusks represent some of the most amazing achievements of animal evolution – you go from a common ancestor to tiny little clams that live in sand and a giant squid and so many other amazing shapes,” the professor said. Julia Sigwart, from the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt, who helped set up the competition.
“Many of these species are unstudied, but each tells its own wonderful story,” she said.
Many people associate molluscs with garden slugs and snails, but there are over 120,000 known species of invertebrates, which first evolved 500m years ago. Most of this ancient group of animals live in the sea. They have no bones or teeth, but have a powerful muscle for movement called a “foot” and a sac that their intestines can fit into.
Voting for your favorite mollusc may seem niche, but like other nature contests including endangered plant of the year and insect of the yearit’s a way to raise the public profile of undervalued wildlife.
“People need to know that snails aren’t just snails and slugs in their backyard, they’re so much more than that,” said Dr. Carola Greve, lab manager at the Loewe Center for Translational Biodiversity Genomics (Loewe-TBG ) in Frankfurt, who did her PhD on sea slugs. “We want people to have fun with this competition, so they can feel excited about these creatures.”
Among the nominees is the sea butterfly (Cymbulia peronii), which spends its entire life drifting in the open ocean. At 6 cm wide, it has a gelatinous shell and two wing-like structures, which give it the appearance of flying through water. Sea butterflies are thought to be a “canary in the coal mine” for their sensitivity to ocean acidification. Knowing the genome will help scientists understand how it will respond to ocean changes and provide insight into the creation of its fragile shell.
The painted snail (Polymita picta) is an endangered species confined to eastern Cuba and is described as “probably the most beautiful snail in the world”, on the contest website. It measures less than 3cm in diameter and has bold and colorful spiral bands. Genetic sequencing of this species could shed light on its ‘elaborate traumatic mating rituals’, which involve stabbing partners with a ‘love dart’ and then transferring sex hormones.
Another competitor is the naval shipworm (Teredo navalis) – a clam, although it looks like a worm – which has eaten the hulls of wooden ships for thousands of years, including those of Christopher Columbus, leaving him stranded in Jamaica.
Scientists believe sea worms could be used as nutrient-rich human food in the future, as they can grow to over a meter in length in just six months, surviving on sewage and algae. “In the past, we were considered villains. But our future (and our genome) may simply help save humanity,” the competition website states.
Two other competitors are the telescope snail (telescope telescope), which has a cone-shaped shell that is often covered with barnacles; and the barge foot (Fustiaire rubescens)which lives in the muddy bottoms of the seabed and whose carapace has the shape of an elongated tusk.
“I try to stay neutral – I think it’s important that all five of us support – but I have to say I’m a sucker for the barge-footer,” Sigwart said.
A jury made up of scientists from the Senckenberg Museum, Loewe-TBG and the World Society for Mollusc Research (Malacological Unitas), who organize the contest, have reduced the number of entries to five.
The cost of sequencing a genome for a mollusk is around €8,000-10,000 (£6,700-8,400). The process involves taking a single fresh specimen, euthanizing it and popping its cells to extract the DNA, which can then be sequenced.
In last year’s inaugural contest, more than 20,000 votes were cast from 120 countries, and the winner was the great argonaut, also known as the paper nautilus. billed as the “most romantic” mollusk due to its long sea voyages, it is an elusive type of octopus that floats on the surface of the ocean.
Sigwart said: “Obviously shellfish are wonderful, but it’s also a testament to the fact that people are fascinated and enraptured by the natural world. These stories of weird and wonderful species do exist, and this contest is a way for people to express their joy about some of these animals.
Voting is open until March 15. you can vote here.