Volcano Snails: The Most Amazing Metal Snail of All

Volcano snail infographic

Volcano snails, also known as Chrysomallon squamiferum, scaly foot snail/gastropod, sea pangolin, magma snail, and lava snail, are the most metal of all snails. They live 2 miles underwater in the Indian ocean where hot magma pouring out of the ground

Are Volcano Snails Real?

You’ve heard of The Man in the Iron Mask, but have you heard about the snail with the iron shell? Because yes, volcano snails are real. They might sound completely made-up, something out of a science-fiction tale, but this marine, iron-made gastropod is 100% real.

First discovered in 2001, they are something of a marvel. They can live in places that very few, if any, other animals could withstand, including very high temperatures, very high pressures, and high levels of acidity in the water.

Where Does the Volcano Snail Live?

This gastropod only lives in one part of earth– the depths of the Indian Ocean. Specifically, around three deep-sea hydrothermal vents. These are:

  • Kairei vent field

  • Longqi vent field

  • Solitaire vent field

The Kairei hydrothermal vent field population of the scaly foot snail or sea pangolin is smaller here than at the Longqi underwater vent field. Kairei sits at 7,923 to 8,071 feet (2,415 to 2,460 m) down in the Central Indian ridge.

These vents are coming under attack from deep-sea mining companies, mining the sea floor and other deep-sea locations for deposits of minerals and other compounds. Because of this, the volcano snail was added to the IUCN Red List as an endangered species in 2019.

What Are Hydrothermal Vents?

Sometimes referred to as “black smokers”, hydrothermal vents can force out hot water mixed with several potentially dangerous metal-based compounds, such as iron, at water temperature that, at times, exceeds 700C. This sort of environment would be unsuitable for other creatures, but the aptly named volcano snail is built for exactly that kind of home.

Can the Scaly Foot Snail Live in Lava?

No, scaly foot snails cannot and do not live in lava.

This gastropod lives in deep (up to 3 kilometers down) hydrothermal vents under the sea, and only in the Indian Ocean. This is a similar environment to lava in that it is an unsuitable habitat for most other creatures, but that’s where the similarities stop.


What Does the Volcano Snail Look Like?

The shell of the scaly foot snail looks fairly typical, with three whorls, but it is actually very unique. The armour is made up of three different layers. The middle layer is what most snail shells are made of – organic periostracum. The inside armour layer (near to the snail’s body) is made from the carbonate mineral aragonite. The outer layer is the one that has stunned university researchers and scientists – it’s rich in iron sulphides.

Not only is the shell of the scaly foot snail (volcano snail) unique, the foot, also known as the body, is very different to other snail species. The bottom and around the sides harden, creating something called sclerites, which are made from those mineralized iron sulphides.

This armour-covered snail is literally an ongoing science and technology experiment!

How Big Can the Deep Sea Volcano Snail Get?

Volcano snails are classed as small gastropods, growing to around 0.39–1.58 inches (0.5-4 cm).

On average, the shell reaches 1.3 inches (3.2 cm) across.

Interestingly, Chrysomallon squamiferum has the biggest heart compared to its body size of all animals in the entire animal world. Humans have a heart that is approximately 0.69% of the body’s total weight. The scaly foot snail’s heart, on the other hand, is approximately 4% of the body’s total weight.

What Do Volcano Snails Eat?

Experts aren’t 100% sure what the scaly foot snail eats. In fact, scientists don’t think it eats in the conventional way at all. Instead, it is believed that scaly foot snails absorb nutrients from the potentially toxic mixes spewing from hot hydrothermal vents that makes up its habitat.

They have what is referred to as an ‘enlarged esophageal gland’. In this oversized gland, which is basically a small pocket, bacteria (chemosynthetic bacteria, specifically) lives and thrives. There are different types, and the different types transform different natural compounds into energy. Some turn iron into energy, others turn carbon or nitrogen into energy, so-on and so-forth. You get the idea.

This gastropod absorbs energy that bacteria create in the esophageal gland, as well as other minerals and compounds in the hydrothermal waters.

Nature really rocks sometimes, doesn’t it?

Are Volcano Snails Made of Iron?

Yes, they are made of iron. Well, a little bit, anyway.

Scientists believe the volcano snail is the only animal species in the world that absorbs metals, such as iron sulphides, from their surroundings and then incorporates it into their skeleton and scaly foot.

It’s an incredibly cool little trick, and it just goes to show how diverse and interesting the animal world can be!  

Are Volcano Snails Magnetic?

Yes, they are actually a little bit magnetic.

As well as incorporating iron sulfide from the vents into its shell, the volcano snail also has small scales across the bottom of its foot (the body).

Is the Sea Pangolin Edible?

No, it is not recommended to eat this gastropod!

This species is listed as endangered, so you’d have a hard time finding it in the ocean, to start with. If you did happen to come across it in the Indian Ocean, you would not be permitted to harass it in any way, including removing it from its habitat.

The volcano snail is reported to be the very first species to hit the endangered list because of deep-sea mining and the effects it has on the watery Indian Ridge surroundings.

How Do Volcano Snails Breed?

Volcano snails are classed as hermaphrodites – simultaneous hermaphrodites, to be exact. This means that they are both male and female, and they can breed with themselves. This is known as self-fertilization and really is a marvel of the animal world.

You can read more about the fascinating world of gastropod reproduction right here: How Do Snails Reproduce?

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