Researchers have discovered a new species in the Florida Keys—and they have named it in honor of legendary American musician Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”
The new species—a brightly colored, lemon-yellow marine snail—is described for the first time in a study published Monday in the journal PeerJ.
Rüdiger Bieler, curator of invertebrates at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the study’s lead author, noticed and collected the first specimens in the mid-1990s, shortly after his team started scuba-based biodiversity surveys in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“I first spotted the unusually bright colors of the living animals while diving in the Keys—they almost looked artificially illuminated,” Bieler told Newsweek. “At the time, we could not be sure that they represented a new species, because many of the worm snail species that had been described in the literature were based on empty shell tubes.”
Over time, the team found several dozen specimens in various locations in the reefs along the island chain of the Keys.
This string of tropical islands located off the southern tip of Florida is home to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, as well as many animals—including the newly identified species—that are found nowhere else in the world.
The new species belongs to a group of marine animals known as “worm snails”—a distant relative of the snails you find in your garden.
Studies of material from collections around the world and DNA sequencing made it clear that this creature represented a new species. Bieler—who has spent four decades studying invertebrate animals in the Western Atlantic—and his team also found a similar snail, this one colored lime-green, during research in the waters off the coast of Belize in Central America.
The researchers found that this species was also new to science, and it has been described for the first time in the PeerJ paper alongside its Floridian cousin.
Not only had the two worm snails never been described before, but the researchers also had to create an entire new genus (or group of species) to classify them, which they named “Cayo” after the Spanish word for a small, low island.
The lime-green snail from Belize was named Cayo galbinus—which means “greenish-yellow” in Latin. Meanwhile, the scientists named the worm snail found in the Keys, Cayo margarita—a nod to Buffett’s famous song from 1977 and his signature citrusy drink.
“The luminous yellow color looked ‘citrusy’ to me from the first time I saw them underwater while scuba diving,” Bieler said. “It was almost funny to find a lime-colored form in the reefs of Belize and a lemony one in the Keys.”
“Having been involved in biodiversity research in the Florida Keys for several decades, our team was no stranger to the regional signature drink, and, of course, Jimmy Buffett’s music. So Cayo margarita‘s name alludes to the drink’s color and the fact that it lives in the Florida Keys, where Jimmy Buffett wrote his Margaritaville song.”
Worm snails spend most of their lives in one place, unlike their free-living relatives. When the juveniles find a suitable spot to live, they cement their shell to a substrate, such as coral rock, and stay put until they die.
“All worm snails look dramatically different from their free-living cousins,” Bieler said. “These animals cement their young shells to the substrate and from then on, the shell is formed as an irregularly coiling tube.”
“In the case of the margarita snail, some of that shell is entrenched or embedded in the underlying coral rock and often only the end part of the shell tube is visible. From that opening, the snail’s body interacts with the outside world,” he said.
The larger worm snails are in the size range of human fingers, but the margarita snail is much smaller, with the shell opening smaller than a pencil eraser.
Intriguingly, the Cayo worm snails lack the protective lid, known as the operculum, that many other groups have. As a result, the coloration of the their exposed head poking out of the shell is clearly visible.
“The most distinctive feature of [Cayo margarita] is the luminous coloration that we have not seen in any other species,” Bieler said.
Because these worm snails never move after finding a spot to hunker down, they have had to invent completely new ways of eating, reproducing and defending themselves, leading to “very interesting” anatomical and behavioral innovations, according to Bieler.
“They have long tentacles that are connected to a mucus gland in the animal’s muscular foot and these tentacles can release mucus threads that combine into a spider-like web to trap plankton and floating particles from the water column,” he said.
“The animal then ingests the entire mucus web, screens out the edible bits, and recycles the valuable mucus. These animals are directly competing with the surrounding coral polyps for food but use a very different technique of capturing it.”
The researchers think that the bright coloration of the Cayo snails may also act as a warning, helping to ward off predators.
“They have some nasty metabolites in their mucus,” Bieler said in a press release. “That also might help explain why they’re able to have exposed heads—on the reef, everybody is out to eat you, and if you don’t have any defensive mechanism, you will be overgrown by the corals and sea anemones and all the stuff around you. It seems like the mucus might help deter the neighbors from getting too close.”
Update 10/09/23, 8:10 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information from Rüdiger Bieler.