These predatory sea snails subdue their prey with a hollow, venom-filled tooth. The venom interferes with nerve impulses, paralyzing prey in various ways. These toxins are now finding medical uses as pain blockers.
Most snails have many small, scraping teeth on a chitinous ribbon, much like the teeth on a file, that can be used to scrape food off of surfaces. One group of predatory snails, the Cone Snails, paralyze their prey with a single, hollow harpoon-shaped tooth filled with venom. Most Cone Snails feed on worms or other snails, but some lie in wait and harpoon and subdue unsuspecting fish.
Cone venom contains hundreds of different compounds called conotoxins that interfere with nerve impulses, causing prey to go limp or to go into rigor with continuously tensed muscles. Some conotoxins take effect quickly but do not last long, while others take effect slowly but last much longer—long enough for a slow-moving snail to swallow their prey. Combinations of conotoxins are specific to cone species, and even populations within species, and are well-honed for their prey. These compounds, each with specific effects, are being studied as pain blockers, some of which can be a hundred times as effective as morphine in relieving pain. Already several drugs have been developed and are currently used in pain therapy.
Collection Manager, Invertebrates
Florida Museum of Natural History
Cone shells (various species)
From the Indo-Pacific, mid-17th–18th centuries