Bright yellow sea snail named ‘margarita’ in honor of late musician Jimmy Buffett

close up of a new species of yellow snail found in the Florida Keys

The new species of margarita snail (Daisy Cay) was discovered in the coral reef of the Florida Keys. (Image credit: R. Bieler)

Researchers have discovered a new species of bright-yellow “margarita” snail hiding in plain sight on a coral reef in the Florida Keys. The tiny invertebrate, which lacks a traditional snail shell, can shoot out toxic mucus webs.

The newfound species, named Daisy Cay as an homage to the late Jimmy Buffett, was discovered on Florida’s Coral Reef, the only barrier reef system in the United States. The vibrant hue of the snail and its close proximity to the Florida coastline inspired researchers to name the snail after “Margaritaville,” the song by Buffett, who died on Sept. 1.

The genus, Cayotranslates to “low island” and describes how the snails’ circular bodies appear on the reef.

C. margarita grows to around 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) and uses its toxic mucus webs to catch plankton, algae and detritus. These snails spend their entire lives anchored to the same spot of the reef and rely on ocean currents to waft food past their mucus webs.

a Margarita Snail in the middle of a dead section of a large brain coral.

A tiny margarita snail sitting in the middle of a dead section of coral. (Image credit: R. Bieler)

The researchers described the newfound snail species in a study published Oct. 9 in the journal PeerJalong with a closely related lime-green snail, named Cayo galbinusthat was recently discovered by the same researchers on coral reefs in Belize.

Related: 10 bizarre deep sea creatures found in 2022

The two species belong to the family Vermetidae, also known as the worm snails, because they do not use their shells to protect their soft bodies. Instead, their modified shells act as a tether that holds them to the reef.

“They are related to regular free-living snails, but when the juveniles find a suitable spot to live, they hunker down, cement their shell to the substrate, and never move again,” study lead author Rüdiger Bielercurator of invertebrates at the Field Museum in Chicago, said in a statement. It is interesting to see two related animals use the same body part for something completely different, he added.

The new species are closely related to the Spider-Man snail, Thylacodes vandyensiswhich was discovered in the Florida Keys by Bieler and his team in 2017. As its name suggests, T. vandyensis also shoots out chemically enriched mucus webs.

closeup of the lime-colored Margarita Snail of the Belizean reef

A newfound lime-green sea snail Cayo galbinus was also described by the researchers. (Image credit: R. Bieler)

The researchers think the toxic Cayo snails’ bright colors are a warning to other animals to “deter the neighbors from getting too close,” Bieler said. This would explain how they are able to live out in the open without any protective shell, he added.

Related: 13 of the most venomous sea creatures lurking in the water

Researchers initially thought the two newfound snails could be related sub-species that had altered their colors based on their location. But this turned out not to be the case.

“Initially, when I saw the lime-green one and the lemon-yellow one, I figured they were the same species,” Bieler said. “But when we sequenced their DNA, they were very different.”

C. margarita and C. galbinus could be some of the few marine creatures that may thrive as a result of climate change. The snails prefer permanently anchoring themselves to dead corals, which will become increasingly common as ocean temperatures rise and corals bleach themselves. However, dead reefs could mean there is less food available to them.

The discovery of C. margarita is a reminder that there are lots of undescribed species hiding in plain sight.

They live in a frequently visited reef, and even then “we had to look very closely” to see them, Bieler said. “It’s another indication that right under our noses, we have undescribed species.”

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Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site “Marine Madness,” which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that’s been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he’d like).

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