There are three species of flamingo tongue snails found in Cayman waters, with Cyphoma gibbosum the most common.
Like other cowrie gastropods, their shells are smooth, with a ventral slit from which their colourful leopard-spotted mantle extends and retreats.
These beautiful snails exist wherever their soft coral prey abounds; they are particularly fond of sea fans. They use their file-like tongues to rasp away at the soft tissues of these corals and, because they live on their prey, this symbiotic association is deemed parasitic.
So long as there are small numbers found on each host, a sustainable balance is found, allowing the corals to regenerate missing tissue almost as quickly as the slow-moving snails eat.
Tom Byrnes is the owner/operator of Cayman Marine Lab. He acquired his Coast Guard Captain’s Licence when he was a teenager and worked as a commercial fisherman in his youth. He got his first diving certificate in 1974 with the YMCA. He has worked in the local dive industry for more than 35 years and has a PhD in marine biology.