Snails and slugs don’t usually get a lot of love. But a Clemson University marine biologist hopes to change that for the Concholepas concholepas, the Chilean abalone.
The Chilean abalone, a large edible sea snail that lives in the temperate waters of the southeast Pacific Ocean from Lobos de Afuera in Peru to Cape Horn in southern Chile, is one of five finalists for 2023 International Mollusc of the Year. The winner will be chosen by a public vote.
Antonio Baeza, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, nominated the Chilean abalone, which is also called ‘loco,’ a loanword from the Mapuche people in Chile.
“The ‘loco’ plays important cultural, social, economic, evolutionary and ecological roles in Chile and Peru,” said Baeza, who studies the snail.
If the Chilean abalone wins, the LOEWE Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics, which sponsors the contest, and the Baeza lab will sequence its genome. Baeza said sequencing the genome of this marine snail could help scientists understand how marine invertebrates deal with heavy fishing and tolerate polluted environments at the molecular level. Relatively few mollusc species have had their genome sequenced.
The International Mollusc of the Year competition was started in 2020 by the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research, LOEWE TBG and the International Society for Mollusc Research to raise awareness and protect the rich diversity of molluscs around the world.
Molluscs are the second-largest group of invertebrates behind arthropods. Molluscs include snails and slugs, mussels and clams, octopus and squid, as well as tusk shells, chitons, monoplacophorans and worm-molluscs. Around 85,000 extant species are recognized.
The Chilean abalone is a top predator in the communities in which it lives and is considered one of several keystone species that control the abundance of other species. It is also one of the main species targeted by territorial use rights in fisheries that support artisanal fishers in Chile.
They live in intertidal and shallow subtidal rock habitats and are often found living among holdfasts in kelp forests or in encrusting communities composed of mussels or barnacles.
They resemble abalone from the west coast of the United States and Mexico, reaching up to eight inches in shell length. It has a large foot and a rugged shell.
Important food source
The “loco” has been a food source for humans for more than 5,000 years, Baeza said.
“It has been fished intensively, up to the point of overexploitation, for more than half a century,” he said. “There are local villages that depend on these fisheries.”
Some species live in heavily polluted coastal areas.
In addition, the oxygen transporter hemocyanin in the blood of the Chilean abalone has immunotherapeutic effects against some types of cancer.
“Sequencing the genome could lead to the discovery of additional molecules that could fight human disease in the future,” he said.
The other finalists are the thick-horned nudibranch, the giant deep-sea oyster, the wavy bubble snail and the leopard slug.
“With the help of the Clemson community, we can win this competition and have a global impact, something that is in line with Clemson University mission,” Baeza said.
Voting is open until 11:59 p.m. on March 19 CET, or 5:59 p.m. March 19 in the Eastern time zone.
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