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Being eaten from the inside out (SAFE for work and the squeamish)

By Leonard Ho - Posted Jul 24, 2014 09:00 AM
Imagine a parasite that forces its feeding tube into your mouth to slowly suck the life force out of you. This is essentially what scientists observed snails doing to hapless SPS corals at Grand Cayman Island.
Being eaten from the inside out (SAFE for work and the squeamish)

Twisted "nom nom"

Coralliophila spp. is a genus of gastropods that have devised all sorts of fanciful ways to extract nutrition out of corals.  Some species are voracious coral predators, ravenously consuming large swaths of soft and stony corals to fill their stomachs.  Some are more parasitic than predatory; For example, Coralliophila violacea (found in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Indo-Pacific) tap into the skins of SPS corals such as Porites and slowly "sip" nutrients from the host coral.  Other Coralliophila snails like C. clathrata are symbionts of "button polyp" corals. These snails feed on nematocysts and zooxanthellae sloughed off Palythoa mucus; Talk about spicy food!

Excuse me! I think you've got something IN your face ...

Then there's Coralliophila caribbea.  As seen in photos d and f (above), this snail inserts its proboscis (feeding apparatus) into the mouths of Montastrea cavernosa brain corals to feed on the coral from inside out!  Scientists studying this snail found zooxanthellae in this snails' digestive systems suggesting these snails weren't stealing food from corals (a type of parasitism known as kleptoparasitism) but actually sucking out the coral's innards.

There are other animals known to attack corals through their mouths.  Proceraea worms, (seen in photos g and h) also eat corals by entering their oral openings.   "Unpleasant" seems like an inadequate word to describe this unique type of parasitism.

This observation was published in the scientific journal, Coral Reefs.

Author: Leonard Ho
Location: Southern California

I'm a passionate aquarist of over 30 years, a coral reef lover, and the blog editor for Advanced Aquarist. While aquarium gadgets interest me, it's really livestock (especially fish), artistry of aquariums, and "method behind the madness" processes that captivate my attention.


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