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Trailblazers

Who do you think makes these tracks in the sand?

15 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Any guesses?

Here's another photo, taken from farther away to give you a bigger picture of the scale of things.

15 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Believe it or not, the maker of these trails is the little black turban snail, Tegula funebralis. They are one of my favorite animals in the intertidal, for a number of reasons:

  1. I always root for the underdog and the under-appreciated, and these snails are so numerous in the intertidal that they are practically invisible. People literally do not see them. I know, because I ask.
  2. They are very useful creatures to keep as lab pets. I throw a few of them into each of my seawater tables, except for the table that contains a resident free-ranging sea star, and they do a fantastic job keeping algal growth to a tolerable minimum. They're my little marine lawnmowers!
  3. They come in very handy when I'm teaching invertebrate zoology. Students study them live to observe behavior, and the snails are not shy. They are very tolerant of being picked up and gently prodded, and soon emerge from their shells and carry on their little snail lives. Students also dissect them in lab to learn about gastropod anatomy.

So yes, these tracks in the sand are made by T. funebralis in the high intertidal. In areas where a layer of sand accumulates either at the bottom of a pool or on a flat exposed rock, it is not uncommon to see a turban snail pushing sand out of the way as it crawls along, like a miniature snow plow.

A black turban snail (Tegula funebralis) plowing through sand on a high intertidal rock at Natural Bridges
15 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Tegula funebralis and its congeners are called turban snails because their shells are shaped like turbans. Given their small size (a big T. funebralis would have a shell height of 2.5-3 cm), pushing sand around must be a tiresome chore. They do it because they have no choice. Most grazing gastropods, such as turban snails and limpets, can feed only when they are crawling. There may very well be a nice yummy layer of algal scum on the surface of this rock, but the snail has to push the sand out of the way before it can feed on it.

Here's another photo, taken at the snail's level.

Tegula funebralis plowing through sand at Natural Bridges
15 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This snail is pushing through a wall of sand as tall as itself! I don't know about you, but I sure as heck couldn't do that. Props to these little snails!

 

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