Snails Carrying Tiny Computers Solve A Survival Mystery

Snails carrying the world’s smallest computers on their shells have helped explain the mystery of their own survival against all odds.

The Society Islands of the South Pacific, a lush tropical archipelago part of French Polynesia, was once home to at least 61 species of arboreal snails. But after the giant African land snail was introduced to the islands, it quickly became a pest, so agronomists introduced the rosy wolf snail in 1974 to wipe out the land snail population.

This decision made native snails an easy target, and most disappeared, ignoring their unique evolutionary histories. A brave species of tree snail however, hyaline particle, survived, leading scientists to wonder why.

Now, a collaboration between University of Michigan biologists and a team of engineers who designed the world’s smallest computer has demonstrated that P. hyalina survived the onslaught because its unique white shells – a prized decorative and cultural emblem in Polynesia – enabled it to occupy the edges of the forest where it was bathed in sunlight, which other snail species cannot tolerate.

The Michigan Micro Mote (M3), considered the world’s smallest full-featured computer, was announced in 2014 by a team co-led by electrical engineering and computer science professor David Blaauw. This new discovery is the first time it has been used in the field.

Researchers Cindy Bick and Diarmaid Ó Fioghil stuck the sensors directly onto pink snails, but couldn’t attach them to P. hyalina due to its endangered status, they therefore placed M3s above and below the leaves housing the resting snails.

A wolf snail tagged and equipped with a Michigan Micro Mote computer system in the Fautaua-Iti Valley site in Tahiti. 1 credit

They measured the light intensity by measuring the time M3 took to recharge using solar energy. The team discovered that at noon, P. hyalina received on average ten times more sun than pink snails. They theorize that pink snails won’t venture to the edge of the forest – even at night – because it would be impossible to escape before the sun gets too hot.

We were able to get data that no one had been able to get,” says Blaauw. “And that’s because we had a tiny computer system that was small enough to fit on a snail.”

“Detection computers help us understand how to protect endemic species on the islands,” explains Cindy Bick, researcher on the project. “If we are able to map and protect these habitats with appropriate conservation measures, we can find ways to ensure the survival of the species.”

“The M3 really opens the window of what we can do with invertebrate behavioral ecology and we are right at the foot of those possibilities,” says Ó Foighil.

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