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Snails and their trails: the multiple functions of trail-following in gastropods

, : Snails and their trails: the multiple functions of trail-following in gastropods. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 88(3): 683-700

Snails are highly unusual among multicellular animals in that they move on a layer of costly mucus, leaving behind a trail that can be followed and utilized for various purposes by themselves or by other animals. Here we review more than 40?years of experimental and theoretical research to try to understand the ecological and evolutionary rationales for trail-following in gastropods. Data from over 30 genera are currently available, representing a broad taxonomic range living in both aquatic and terrestrial environments. The emerging picture is that the production of mucus trails, which initially was an adaptation to facilitate locomotion and/or habitat extension, has evolved to facilitate a multitude of additional functions. Trail-following supports homing behaviours, and provides simple mechanisms for self-organisation in groups of snails, promoting aggregation and thus relieving desiccation and predation pressures. In gastropods that copulate, trail-following is an important component in mate-searching, either as an alternative, or in addition to the release of water- or air-borne pheromones. In some species, this includes a capacity of males not only to identify trails of conspecifics but also to discriminate between trails laid by females and males. Notably, trail discrimination seems important as a pre-zygotic barrier to mating in some snail species. As production of a mucus trail is the most costly component of snail locomotion, it is also tempting to speculate that evolution has given rise to various ways to compensate for energy losses. Some snails, for example, increase energy intake by eating particles attached to the mucus of trails that they follow, whereas others save energy through reducing the production of their own mucus by moving over previously laid mucus trails. Trail-following to locate a prey item or a mate is also a way to save energy. While the rationale for trail-following in many cases appears clear, the basic mechanisms of trail discrimination, including the mechanisms by which many snails determine the polarity of the trail, are yet to be experimentally determined. Given the multiple functions of trail-following we propose that future studies should adopt an integrated approach, taking into account the possibility of the simultaneous occurrence of many selectively advantageous roles of trail-following behaviour in gastropods. We also believe that future opportunities to link phenotypic and genotypic traits will make possible a new generation of research projects in which gastropod trail-following, its multitude of functions and evolutionary trade-offs can be further elucidated.


PMID: 23374161

DOI: 10.1111/brv.12023

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