“Screw” the world’s smallest computer on the back of a snail, and zoologists use data to crack the “unsolved mystery”

A 2×5×2 mm sensor is slightly larger than aphids.

Giving snails a computer sounds like a cute scene that only happens in animation, but recently, the snails in Tahiti in the South Pacific really carried the world’s smallest microcomputer on their backs. These moments accompany the snails. The computer recorded their habitat environment data, and the scientists also revealed a biological “unsolved mystery” from it.

The snail carrying a small computer is called the rose wolf snail. As the name suggests, the shell on its back is brown-red like a rose and feeds on meat. The rose wolf snail was introduced into the archipelago where Tahiti is located in the 1970s, with the purpose of controlling another invader, the giant African land snail. But the rose wolf snail reproduces fast and has strong lethality, which led to the extinction of many tree snails on the island. But the magic is that a small white-shelled snail Partula hyalina (P. hyalina) unexpectedly survived.

What is so special about this little white snail Partula hyalina? Scientists are puzzled. But recently, through the solar data collected by the world’s smallest computers, researchers have discovered the secret of the escape of “surviving snails”. Their research results were published in Communications Biology in June.

"Screw" the world's smallest computer on the back of a snail, and zoologists use data to crack the "unsolved mystery"

The “unsolved mystery” of the survival of the white-shelled snail in Tahiti

In 2012, when Dr. Cindy Bick, a researcher at the University of Michigan, was still a graduate student, she began investigating the “unsolved mystery of P. hyalina’s survival with Diarmaid Ó Foighil , professor of ecology and evolutionary biology . “. Together, they published a paper in 2014 showing that the species’ richer progeny is one of the reasons why it survives better than other species. But this is obviously not the key reason why P. hyalina can survive.

Most land snails like shade. Like many species, the black-shelled rosy wolf snail absorbs a lot of sunlight if it is placed in the sun, and therefore loses water and dries like dried meat. But when Dr. Bick was doing research in a field journal of a fondant scientist in the early 20th century , he read that P. hyalina was often found to be active at the edge of the forest, where the trees were sparse and the light was more intense.

Dr. Bick and Dr. Ó Foighil therefore put forward the hypothesis: P. hyalina’s milky white shell can reflect sunlight and therefore can survive in stronger sunlight. Therefore, they can move on the edge of the forest with more sunlight. Can be a safe haven away from carnivorous snails.

The two zoologists began to find a way to verify this hypothesis, whether there is a way to measure how much sunlight each snail receives every day. To this end, they contacted David Blaauw’s engineering laboratory on campus, hoping that they could make a microcomputer and place it on the carnivorous snails on the island of Tahiti. Dr. Bick’s proposal is very attractive—the opportunity to test sensors in the real world and assist in a wildlife conservation project.

"Screw" the world's smallest computer on the back of a snail, and zoologists use data to crack the "unsolved mystery"

Make the world’s smallest microcomputer and “screw” it into a snail shell

Dr. Blaauw’s team accepted this engineering challenge-to manufacture the smallest sensor in the world. To prepare the sensor for the snail, Dr. Blaauw’s laboratory added a miniature energy harvester with solar cells so that the sensor can charge the battery in the sun. They wrapped the system in epoxy resin to waterproof the sensor, protect it from strong light, and cushion the rough life of ordinary snails.

They successfully manufactured the world’s smallest computer with a battery: a 2×5×2 mm sensor, slightly larger than aphids, these microcomputers can receive visible light data through the sensor and transmit it via radio.

"Screw" the world's smallest computer on the back of a snail, and zoologists use data to crack the "unsolved mystery"

However, to make this computer run smoothly, researchers still need to solve a big problem, the energy problem. Inhee Lee, now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and then a researcher in Dr. Blaauw’s lab, solved this problem. Dr. Lee and Dr. Blaauw used a solar charging device to measure the amount of light and convert it into energy for computer work.

Another problem is how to fix the sensor firmly on the back of the snail. Scientists’ “little mice” are some “local” snails found in Michigan gardens. The researchers first tried to stick the computer to the case with magnets and Velcro, but they were unsuccessful until they figured out how to stick the metal nut. On the snail shell and screw the sensor into the nut. Then the snails and their little passengers are also ready to withstand the test of various simulation elements (buckets).

Good data to protect habitats of endangered species

In August 2017, Dr. Bick and Dr. Lee arrived in Tahiti with 55 sensors. Under the leadership of the local snail zoologist Trevor Coote), they successfully equipped these snail sensors on carnivorous snail shells; in view of the small number of P. hyalina snails, the scientists did not disturb these milky white fragile little creatures, only the sensors Installed under the leaves where they perched.

Every day, researchers track snails for hours to ensure that they are not “offline”, if they track how much sunlight these different snails receive.

The data from these sensors supports the initial hypothesis. Tracking data over a period of time showed that the sensors in the habitat of P. hyalina received 10 times as much sunlight as the rosy wolf snail on average. This confirms that stronger light conditions can protect the white-shelled snails from the rose wolf carnivorous snails.

"Screw" the world's smallest computer on the back of a snail, and zoologists use data to crack the "unsolved mystery"

“I grew up in these environments and heard myths and stories about animals and plants. If we don’t act quickly to protect them, they will either be extinct or about to become extinct,” Dr. Bick added, and she hopes this research will support it. They better protect the P. hyalina sun refuge habitat in the archipelago.

Source of material:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/13/science/snail-tiny-computer.html

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/oryx/article/differential-survival-among-tahitian-tree-snails-during-a-mass-extinction-event-persistence-of-the-rare-and- fecund/FB6F5CECCDF77A5CA6266BC1FB6E00A3?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=pmd_b2511d2a1c92b4d7fa5a899758514b9d81693d42-1627203914-0-gqNtZGzNAvijcnBszQi6

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