Threatened snails ‘key to crucial treatments’

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SCIENTISTS from Yorkshire are warning future generations could be denied treatments for life-threatening illnesses owing to threats to exotic snails.

Blessed with beautiful and coveted shells, cone snails have been collected for thousands of years. But they are also believed to possess an undiscovered reservoir of pharmaceutical treatments.

The snails live in tropical seas and can manufacture powerful venom to immobilise prey of fish, worms and other snails, which is so toxic it can kill humans.

Scientists are using these neurotoxins for research into new life-saving drugs for conditions including chronic pain, epilepsy, asthma and multiple sclerosis.

But in a new study, experts from the environmental department at York University warn they are under growing threat.

Lead author Howard Peters said around one in 10 species of the snail were threatened or under threat of extinction but this rose to nearly half of all species in the eastern Atlantic where there was an “extraordinary concentration of range-restricted species”.

“In Cape Verde, 53 species are found nowhere else in the world of which 43 live only around single islands,” he said. “Here, pollution and shoreline construction for the expanding tourist industry threaten their existence. Sand is being dredged from the shallows where cone snails live to make concrete for resorts, harbours and cruise liner terminals

“Despite their extraordinary beauty and value, cone snails have fallen completely underneath the conservation radar. These snails need swift action to protect their habitats and publicise the dire consequences of irresponsible shell collecting.”