"Wonder Drug" Snails Face Threats, Experts Warn

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Habitat loss is exacerbated by direct exploitation. The attractive shells are collected in their millions from Mexico, Indonesia, Fiji, and elsewhere, and sold in seaside resort towns worldwide, said Roberts. It's not just the tourist industry though, he added. One unnamed U.S. research institute recently imported the venom glands from 10,000 snails collected in China.

"The recent increase in bioprospecting provides levels of harvesting which may well accelerate the current rates of decline," commented Mary Seddon, World Conservation Union (IUCN) mollusk specialist and biodiversity scientist at the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in Cardiff. Bioprospecting is the process of searching for new medicines, and otherwise useful compounds in nature.

Damage Limitation

Despite these threats, very few mollusk species enjoy international protection. "There are only five species of [cone snails] listed on the IUCN red list of globally threatened species," said Seddon. "This is not a true reflection of the potential threats of extinction for the rare and narrowly localized species."

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which serves to legally protect threatened animals, should be extended to cover cone snails, argues the Science letter. Earlier this month, additional protection was given under this convention to the queen conch mollusk, a popular food item famous for its enormous pink shell.

If the cone snail genus was added to a part of the CITES agreement known as Appendix II, their trade would be allowed to continue, said Roberts, but countries would be obliged to both monitor trade and limit exploitation.

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