"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

November 12, 2015

Colubraria reticulata

Vampires have undergone a lot of image change over the centuries and they are a common part of many culture's mythology. But vampires are also a common part of nature. Blood sucking is a life style found in over 14000 known living species. Even those vampires themselves have blood suckers that feed on them. But living as a blood-sucker require special adaptations, and one particularly unlikely vampire is Colubraria (formerly known as Cumia) reticulata, the vampire snail. It is a marine snail that feed on fish blood and it belongs to a family of vampire snails called the Colubrariidae - at least six species are known to feed on blood and it is quite likely that it is a trait shared by the entire family.
Image modified from Figure 2 of the paper

So just how does a snail feed on a comparatively agile animal like a fish? First of all, they feed at night when fish are asleep, a survival tactic shared by other blood-feeders like vampire bats. They also have modified mouthpart can can slice flesh like a tiny scalpel, which is mounted at the end of a long proboscis that can stretch to three times its body length. This enables it to bypass even a parrotfish's mucus sleeping bag which normally protects it against other nocturnal blood-suckers.

But those behavioural and anatomical adaptations are just the start, most of the tools C. reticulata brings to this blood feast exist on a molecular level. The vampire snail is able to secrete a range of specialised proteins, most of which have multiple effects on the host and overlap in their functions.

First of all when the snail is about to cut into the fish's flesh, it spits out an anaesthetic similar to compounds secreted by other blood suckers like mosquitoes, to numb the area of incision. Once C. reticulata gets access under the fish's skin, other types of compounds come into play. A major problem for any would-be vampire is the natural tendency for blood to clot. Imagine drinking a smoothie and suddenly it turns into a big block of solid curd. So during feeding, C. reticulata secretes a chemical cocktail that disrupts the process of blood clotting and wound healing. Furthermore, the anti-coagulant action needs to be active until the blood is fully digested, so the snail also have secondary glands in its oesophagus that secrete other types of proteins to keep the blood liquefied as it sits in the snail's gut.

In addition to anti-coagulants, C. reticulata also spits out vasopressive compounds that increases the fish's blood pressure. This is very important to the vampire snail's feeding style because its long proboscis is actually not very muscular - so it is not that good at sucking blood. Instead, the snail injects compounds that increase the fish's blood pressure so that it will actually be pumping blood into the snail's gut. When scientists looked into the vampire snail's molecular arsenal in more details, they found that many of the proteins secrete by the vampire snail can be considered as pretty standard fare for a vampire and are similar to those found in terrestrial blood-feeders like ticks and mosquitoes.

However, C. reticulata also has a few tricks up its shell which are unique compared with other vampires, in particular the complex of protein which it secretes to temporarily suppress the fish's coagulation and healing mechanism. This is actually quite a feat because comparing with other vertebrate animals, fish are very good at repairing vascular injuries, especially in delicate blood-rich organs like the gills which are exposed to the external environment.

Another substance unique to the vampire snail is turritoxin - which is also produced by the coneshell. At this point, scientists are unsure how vampire snail (or the cone shell) uses turritoxin in their hunting behaviour, though it is possible they release it as a way of lulling the fish into a compliant state. Scientists have observed that fish which are approached by the coneshell enters a kind of "hypnotic" state before they get stung with the coneshell's highly lethal neurotoxin. Perhaps the vampire snail also release turritoxin to coax its victim into a deeper state of sleep.

By investigating the molecular arsenal of the vampire snail, scientists can gain insight into how the vampire snail evolved to be a blood-feeder. In addition, some of compounds secreted by C. reticulata can finely manipulate the physiology of their host, and examining them in detail may lead to the development of compounds with useful medical and pharmaceutical applications.

Modica, M. V., Lombardo, F., Franchini, P., & Oliverio, M. (2015). The venomous cocktail of the vampire snail Colubraria reticulata (Mollusca, Gastropoda). BMC Genomics,16: 441.