A startling mutual-aid society is linking fungus and snails in marine ecosystems, according to a study led by a Brown University biologist. The study presents the first evidence that a species of marine snail engages in a previously undemonstrated form of food acquisition and ecological control by initiating and encouraging the growth of fungi, its preferred food, on live marsh grass. Infestation by fungi greatly slows the growth of the grass.
In surveys conducted along 2,000 kilometers of salt marshes on the southern U.S. shoreline, the researchers observed that the snail, Littoraria irrorata, actively grazes a live salt-marsh cordgrass. As the snail crawls along the grass surface, it scrapes grass tissue with its band of saw-like teeth and creates longitudinal cuts in leaf surfaces, making a much larger meal possible. While it travels, the snail also deposits feces laden with fungal spores and nutrients into the sensitive inner-tissue of the leaf, effectively stimulating and fertilizing fungal crops.
The result of snail grazing on marsh grass surface is an infestation of fungi, a major diet component for the snail, and the slowing of marsh grass growth.
Ricardo Howell | Brown University
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