Flamingoes gone mad below the surface

By Karen Erens

Have you ever seen flamingoes underwater?


What did I just say?


The Cyphoma Gibbosum, better known as the flamingo tongue snail, is a small snail (25-35 mm) that can be spotted on dives in the Caribbean Sea. Usually, they hide in between the branches of soft corals.

They are very beautiful snails, with their bright orange-yellow and black markings; they resemble a little bit the pattern of a leopard.


In a lot of Caribbean dive locations, they are getting rather difficult to spot. Divers and snorkelers tend to take them as souvenirs because of their beautiful, dotted pattern, but the nicely coloured dots are part of their tissue. These colours are not in the shell; once the snail dies, they lose this beautiful pattern and become a dull whitish pink.


I’ve seen them around on my dives in the Caribbean Sea, always on the soft corals in the shallow parts of the reef.


The flamingo tongue feeds on the polyps of soft corals like gorgonians, sea fans or sea whips. They use their radula (or foot) to secrete enzymes that allow them to scrape away and digest the soft tissue of the soft corals. The flesh of these corals is highly toxic, but the flamingo tongue snail has adapted to withstand those toxins and become toxic themselves for protection. They warn possible predators with their bright colours. However, some predators don’t mind the flamingo tongue being toxic; bigger reef fish and lobsters like to eat them.


And the corals? Well, the tissue of the damaged soft corals will grow back after some time.


A good balance exists on healthy reefs between the snails feeding on soft corals and predators eating the snails so the soft corals can grow back.


But on Sandy Island, next to Carriacou, one of the southeastern Caribbean islands, the populations are out of balance. Having so many of the Cyphoma Gibbosum snails around is becoming a problem for their soft corals. Too many lobsters and bigger fish were caught to serve as food for the surrounding restaurants so the flamingo tongue could reproduce quickly. Don’t forget that snails feed on soft corals, and there are just too many flamingo tongues, so the soft corals don’t get the time anymore to grow back but instead disappear.


Honestly, I must admit I never heard of this problem before. Our sailing friends Thierry and Nathalie from the sailing yacht Ornella told us all about it. They visited Carriacou some weeks ago and participated in a local project to protect the soft corals of Sandy Island.


A “dive against the Cyphoma Gibbosum” was organized by the local dive center “Dive Carriacou.”


A group of divers went to Sandy Island for a long dive, collecting as many flamingo tongue snails as possible. On their search between the branches of soft corals, the divers had to wear gloves to gather the flamingo tongues, as the snails are also toxic to humans. That’s the reason why we do not eat them.


The project of Dive Carriacou included collecting the snails while diving and, after the dive, treating them to recover the shells for artistic purposes. The snails were soaked in several water-vinegar baths, first to kill them and later to get the snail tissue out of their shells. Once this was done, they got a last bath in water with a bit of oil to make the shells shiny and bright, making them more beautiful to use in jewelry or home decorations.


This project of diving against the flamingo tongue snail resulted in the removal of 2.548 snails from the reefs of Sandy Island.


Fingers crossed that this action really helped in the protection of the soft corals and the awareness that lobsters and bigger reef fish are required to keep the reefs in a healthy balance!


So please, if you are on holiday in the Caribbean, respect the lobster season; the season is spread differently over the islands. If you are in the mood to eat lobster, please check when the lobster season is in your location and don’t order lobsters in restaurants when it isn’t the season because some restaurants serve lobsters off-season. Give lobsters the time to reproduce; in this way, we can keep eating lobsters for many years to come. Cross-marketing is not that difficult.


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