Sex-Changing Snails Morph into Another Gender When Touching Another Snail

First Posted: Dec 30, 2015 07:00 AM EST

A certain sex-changing snail actually changes its sex more quickly when it's next to another snail. Scientists have taken a closer look at these animals and have found that when two males are together, one will change into a female.

Tropical slipper limpets, Crepidula cf. marginalis, live under rocks in intertidal areas along the shore, obtaining food by filtering plankton and other particles from the water. Their thin, flattened shells have a built-in shelf. When flipped over, the snails actually resemble house slippers. They're often found in clusters, though they can also occur alone or as pairs or trios consisting of a large female with one or two smaller males riding piggyback on her shell.

Slipper limpets actually all begin life as males, and then become females as they grow. This type of sex change is advantageous because large animals are able to produce larger numbers of eggs as females, while small males still produce plenty of sperms.

In this latest study, the researchers kept two males differing slightly in size in small cups containing seawater. In some cups they were allowed to be in contact with one another, while in others a mesh barrier kept them apart while allowing water to pass through.

So what happened? The larger snails in the pairs that were directly in contact with their partners grew more quickly and changed into females sooner than those kept apart. The smaller member of a pair actually delayed sex change compared to ones separated by mesh.

"Slipper snails don't move around much, so you don't really think of them having complex reactions to each other," said Rachel Collin, one of the researchers, in a news release. "But this study shows that there is more going on there than we thought."

The findings are published in the journal The Biological Bulletin.

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