When the cone snails shoot fish with their tooth, they hold on to the tooth to keep the fish from swimming away. Eventually the venom, which affects the nervous system and also deteriorates the animal’s tissues, takes effect, allowing the snail to eat the fish whole.
The venom of the cone snail has to be strong enough to paralyze instantly. Otherwise, the fish it preys on would swim away to die, and the slow-moving gastropod would have nothing for its efforts. It’s also known, in a gallows humor sort of way, as the cigarette snail, meaning if one stings you, you have just enough time to smoke a cigarette before you die.
Though the snails are eyeless, they’re still able sense the world around them, sort of like a marine, really slow-moving Daredevil. They use a special organ called the osphradium, which is a chemoreceptor organ– that is to say, it takes in chemicals from the environment and figures out what’s going on based on that. It’s linked to the snail’s respiratory system, which means that as it breathes in, it’s taking in chemicals and materials from the water. In this way the snail can detect silt, food particles and tasty, tasty fish residues.
Despite their deadliness, cone shells have been coveted for their shells for centuries. The 18th century saw the advent of shell garden in the Rococo style, driving up the prices of cone snail shells to more than that of a Vermeer painting.
So next time you are off to Australia, beware of this beautiful but deadly creature.