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World’s tiniest computer shows how South Pacific snail survived mass extinction

After an alien predatory snail was introduced to the South Pacific Society Islands in the 1970s, more than 50 native tree snail species were totally wiped out.

Only a single native species, Partula hyalina, survived.

Now, thanks to the world’s smallest computer, the Michigan Micro Mote, which scientists attached to the shell of the predator and to the leaves P. hyalina use for shelter, researchers know how.

Data collected by the tiny computer showed P. hyalina can tolerate more sunlight than the alien predator, Euglandina rosea.

Researchers shared their findings in a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal Communications Biology.

“We were able to get data that nobody had been able to obtain,” study co-author David Blaauw said in a press release.

“And that’s because we had a tiny computing system that was small enough to stick on a snail,” said Blaauw, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.

Data collected by the miniature computer showed the island’s sole surviving native snail spends most of its time along the sunlit edges of forests.

To protect the species, conservationists will need to beef up protections for this unique ecological niche.

“If we are able to map and protect these habitats through appropriate conservation measures, we can figure out ways to ensure the survival of the species,” said lead author Cindy Bick, who earned a doctoral degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Michigan in 2018.

The snails of the South Pacific Society Islands were once likened to the Darwin finches of the Galapagos, offering scientists a unique opportunity to study evolution and biodiversity within intimate, isolated ecosystems.

But after another alien species, the giant African land snail, originally introduced as a food source, became a pest, agricultural scientists introduced the rosy wolf snail to control the population.

Without any natural predators, the rosy wolf snail quickly ate its way through the island’s native snail populations.

“The endemic tree snails had never encountered a predator like the alien rosy wolf snail before it’s deliberate introduction. It can climb trees and very quickly drove most of the valley populations to local extinction,” said co-author Diarmaid Ó Foighil, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

Ó Foighil and Bick hypothesized that P. hyalina’s white shell helped it tolerate more sunlight, which might explain its survival.

After struggling to find light measuring sensors small enough to fit on the snail’s shell, the duo partnered with computer scientists to pair the Michigan Micro Mote with a tiny solar cell.

Researchers shipped the new technology to Tahiti where the tiny computers were attached to the shells of the rosy wolf snails and to the leaf piles P. hyalina snails use for shelter. Every day, scientists uploaded measurements collected by the tiny computers.

The data showed the habitat preferred by P. hyalina received ten times more sunlight than the rosy wolf snails over the course of the day.

Scientists hypothesize that the risk of overheating is enough to keep the rosy wolf snails from venturing into the forest edge habitat where P. hyalina live.

“The M3 really opens up the window of what we can do with invertebrate behavioral ecology and we’re just at the foothills of those possibilities,” Ó Foighil said.

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