Cone Snail

Oh look, what a pretty shell.

That pretty shell is a Cone Snail, one of a number of related snails that get around looking pretty and harpooning small fish (or sometimes worms, or other snails) with highly modified teeth attached to a venom sac. The fish harpoon is very effective on fish, and not much less effective on people.

Cone shells are sometimes jokingly referred to as “Cigarette Snails”. Because if one stings you, you’ll have time to smoke a cigarette before you die. Jokes are funny.

The venom in these things has a huge variety. Some are a bee sting. Some are a death sentence. One of them turns out to be a better pain killer than morphine, about a thousand times more effective. This is pretty common in nature. A lot of toxins are medicines in the right dosage. There’s a frog poison that’s also vastly more effective than morphine, but the downside is that there’s almost no difference between the dosage for pain-free bliss and the dosage for agonising death, so it can’t be safely used. The downside for Cone Shell venom is that even though it is actually being used now it has to be injected directly into the spine. Which is pretty low on my bucket list.

There is a lot of research being done on using these sorts of venoms to make more effective and side-effect free non-addictive pain medication.

This one species alone, the Geograpy Cone, is responsible for at least 30 deaths, though few of them were in Australia. Like a lot of Australia’s nastiest beasties, the cone snails live almost entirely in the northern coasts, especially the coast of Far North Queensland. It’s worth pointing out that the picture at the right is not a geographus at all, but a Textile Cone, Conus textilus. They’re just easier to find decent pictures of.

Don’t pick up pretty shells from beaches in FNQ. Especially if they look like this picture. If they’re on the sand they could still be alive and full of anger. If they’re in the water while scuba diving or snorkelling they’re almost certainly still alive and full of anger, so leave them very, very alone. They can and will sting through gloves or wetsuits.

Like a lot of other venomous creatures, there is no antivenom. They follow the common neurotoxin pattern of causing numbness and paralysis, eventually leading to paralysis of the respiratory system. That takes some time. But as humans are quite reliant on their respiratory system, this is a very big problem. Medical treatment mostly involves keeping the patient comfortable and (most importantly) breathing while their body breaks down the toxins. It’s very exciting how many Australian animals have that as a medical treatment. A valiant fight against the grim reaper until the patient can stop dying and just get over it. Or just light a cigarette and wait.

Cone Shell, Cone Shell Snail
Conus geographus