Scientists attach the world's smallest computer to the shell of a Tahitian snail

Something terrible for the natural population of snails in the Pacific Society Islands happened in the 1970s. An alien predatory snail was introduced at that time, and over 50 species of tree snails native to the islands were wiped out. One of the few survivors was the white-shelled Partula Hyalina.

Collaboration between University of Michigan biologists and engineers has taken the world's smallest computer and attached it to the snails' shell. The program aims to learn why Partula Hyalina can tolerate more sunlight than the predatory snail species, enabling it to continue living at the edge of the forests in sunlight that other snails can't handle. Researcher David Blaauw says the team was able to get data others were unable to obtain because of the tiny computing system that was small enough to attach to the snail's shell.

The tiny computer is called the Michigan Micro Mote and was invented by Blaauw and a team of engineers in 2014. Being attached to the shell of the snail is the tiny computer's first field application. Researcher Cindy Bick says the sensing computers are helping scientists understand how to protect endemic species on islands. According to Bick, if the team can map and protect these habitats through appropriate conservation measures, it could figure out ways to ensure the survival of the species.

Partula Hyalina snails are important to the culture for Polynesians due to the color of the shell, which is attractive for use in leis and jewelry. Tree snails are also critical to the island forest ecosystem as the largest group of native grazers. The trouble for most snails on the Pacific Islands started when the giant African Lansdale was introduced to the Society Islands, including Tahiti, to be cultivated as a food source but became a major pest.

To control the population of African Lansdale, agricultural scientists introduced the Rosy Wolf snail in 1974 but most of the 61 known species of native Society Island tree snails were easy prey for the Rosy Wolf. Partula Hyalina is one of only five species that survived in the wild.