A Tiny Computer on a Snail Helps Solve the Extinction Mystery


In 2017, a pink wolf snail crawled along a sunny trail in Tahiti with an unexpected traveler: a custom-built computer the size of an aphid, gracefully screwed into its shell like a top hat.

This particular snail species has gone extinct. 134 species of snails Worldwide. Humans introduced the carnivorous pink wolf snail to Tahiti decades ago, and the predatory species has left few survivors.

But one Tahitian species has survived in dozens of valleys on the island: the tiny yogurt-colored snail, Partula hyalina. “There must be something special about them,” said researcher Cindy Bick of the University of Michigan.

Now, with solar data collected from some of the world’s smallest computers connected to the pink wolf’s shell and the leafy habitat of P. hyalina, Dr. Bick and colleagues have illuminated how the pale shell of P. hyalina drove the species to extinction. . The results were published in June. Communication Biology.

In 2012, Dr. While still a graduate student, Bick began investigating the mystery of P. hyalina’s survival with Diarmaid Ó Foighil, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator at the university’s Museum of Zoology. Together they published a post 2014 paper suggesting that the species had more generous offspring helped it survive better than other species. But even this did not explain the rare success of P. hyalina. Dr. Ó “It does more than just survive,” Foighil said.

Most land snails prefer shade. The dark-shelled pink wolf snail, like many species, will dry out like a jerky if left in the sun. However, Dr. While researching the field diaries of an early 20th-century malacologist, Bick read that P. hyalina is often found on forest edges where trees thin out in sunlight.

Dr. Bick and Dr. Ó Foighil began to think: If P. hyalina’s milky bark could reflect back and tolerate more sunlight, sunny forest fringes could offer a safe haven from the pink wolf. They needed a way to measure how much sunlight each species got each day.

While two zoologists were pondering snails on campus, David Blaauw’s engineering lab had created the world’s smallest computer with a battery: a 2-by-5-by-2-millimeter sensor, slightly larger than an aphid. The sensors receive the data with visible light and transmit it via a radio.

A few years later, Dr. Blaauw’s team received a prominent request: to connect small computers to carnivorous snails in Tahiti. Dr. Bick’s proposal seemed perfect – a chance to test sensors in the real world with nearby collaborators and help with a project that could advance wildlife conservation.

To prepare the sensors for snails, Dr. Blaauw’s lab added a small solar energy harvester so the sensor could recharge its battery in the sun. They wrapped the system in epoxy to waterproof the sensor, protect it from harsh light, and protect it from the rough and tumble life of the average snail.

They had a problem. They needed to give small computers the power to measure light, but they needed to keep the system away from large batteries that would flatten a snail. Now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and then Dr. Inhee Lee, a researcher in Blaauw’s lab, helped solve the puzzle. Dr. Lee and Dr. Blaauw simply reused the harvester and measured the speed of solar charging as a representative of sunlight.

Using some invasive snails found in a Michigan garden, the researchers tried and failed to attach computers to the shells with magnets and Velcro until they figured out how to glue a metal nut to the surface and screw the sensor into the nut. Then the snails and their tiny passengers were ready to vent the simulated elements (buckets of water).

In August 2017, Dr. Bick and Dr. Lee arrived in Tahiti with 55 sensors. They jumped from valley to valley under the guidance of Trevor Coote, the paper’s author and expert on these Tahiti-based land snails. (Dr. Coote died of Covid-19 in February 2021.)

The researchers followed the snails for hours every day to make sure they didn’t escape. It rained on them from time to time. They didn’t have permissions to connect computers to P. hyalina, which is thought to be endangered, so they placed cameras directly next to the snails on the leaves where they slept during the day, essentially tracking how much sunlight the sessile snails got. But the computer-loaded pink wolf snails proved to be a more formidable challenge, as the mollusks were determined to move slowly and eat (a snail escaped for several days with a sensor).

The data revealed that sensors in the habitat of P. hyalina received an average of 10 times more sunlight than pink wolf snails. This confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that bright conditions protect pale snails from pink predators.

The pink wolf snail was introduced to the Society Islands in the 1970s in an attempt to control another invader, the giant African land snail. But the pink wolf’s reign of terror has driven many species of tree snails to extinction on the islands.

Pacific Dr. “I grew up in these environments and listened to myths and stories about animals and plants that are now extinct or are on their way to extinction if we don’t act quickly to protect them,” Bick said. Islander. He added that he hopes this research will support efforts to protect P. hyalina’s sun-shelter habitats on the Society Islands.

Dr. “Most of the time we talk about dead and dying things,” Bick said. “This is a story of endurance.”


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