Conus Synthesis Meeting, 25 – 29 October 2011

During the last week of October the Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum Chicago hosted an IUCN Red List workshop on behalf of the University of York, UK. The purpose of the meeting was to assess threats to over 640 species of cone snails, one of the largest assessments undertaken for this purpose at a single session.

Conus, being the largest genus of marine invertebrates, is of special significance to biodiversity. Occurring primarily in tropical coastal waters, these snails are predatory and capture their meals of fish, molluscs or worms using complex neurotoxins delivered through detached ‘harpoons’ evolved from their radulae. The toxins, which possibly number in excess of 50,000 across the genus, are of considerable interest to biomedical science with drugs already on the market for the treatment of intractable pain and with many other applications in research. To date, less that 1% of toxins have been characterized. Conus confronts the same threats from fishing, pollution and habitat loss as other tropical marine taxa, but with a carnivorous diet, these gastropod molluscs are at a trophic level where habitat degradation also carries special significance in its potential for reducing prey abundance and disrupting the food chain.

The workshop opened with an address by Callum Roberts of the University of York describing the challenges facing marine science as the impact of over-exploitation, habitat loss, rising sea levels and changes in the marine carbon cycle bring global fisheries to collapse and threaten the future existence of aragonite-secreting animals such as corals and molluscs. Mark Westneat of the Encyclopedia of Life and Heather Harwell of the IUCN Global Marine Species Assessment, joint sponsors of the meeting, presented the work of their respective organizations. This was followed by a talk from Howard Peters, principal researcher for the Cone Snail Project at York, on the background to the research and its future direction that will include sample surveys of Conus populations across variations in habitat. Monika Böhm of the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London and Mary Seddon of the IUCN Mollusc Specialist Group concluded the formal proceedings with presentations on the application of the standard IUCN Categories and Criteria and the taxonomic approaches to Red Listing.

The meeting divided into six work groups each representing a different biogeographical region to review draft species assessments researched at York over the previous months. Each group consisted of two or three experts for that region with representation from both academia and commerce, including leading malacologists and taxonomists but also major global traders in mollusc shells who are committed to conservation. This unusual approach created a dynamic environment where the ‘in-water’ knowledge of the traders dovetailed with the scientific expertise of the academics to produce an exceptionally insightful narrative of the distribution, trade and threats facing each species.

Over the following months the assessments will be subject to stringent consistency and accuracy checks before publication on both the websites of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the Encyclopedia of Life where the data will be available for subscription-free access to researchers worldwide.
In addition to those mentioned above, other participants at the workshop were: Philippe Bouchet, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, France; José Coltro, Femorale, Brazil; Tom Duda, University of Michigan, USA; Andrew Hines, Global Marine Species Assessment, USA; Alan Kohn, University of Washington, USA; Suzanne Livingstone, The Biodiversity Consultancy Ltd, France; Eric Monnier, Cons. National des Arts et Métiers, France; Hugh Morrison, Australian Seashells, Australia; Ed Petuch, Florida Atlantic University, USA; Guido Poppe, Conchology Inc., Philippines; Gabriella Raybaudi-Massilia, University of Roma Tre, Italy; Jonnell Sanciangco, Global Marine Species Assessment, USA; Sheila Tagaro, Conchology Inc., Philippines; Manuel Jiménez Tenorio, Universidad de Cádiz, Spain; Stephan Veldsman, Gem Science, South Africa; Fred E Wells, Consultant Marine Ecologist, Australia.

Howard Peters