Green Pages

Flamingo Got Your Tongue?

The scoop on these small marine snails.

Story & Photos By Carmen Hoyt, Waterfront Assistant, The School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies, South Caicos

Let me tell you, nothing quiets a crowd faster than saying, “I love flamingo tongues!” Such an exclamation is usually met with some sideways stares and confused looks. Flamingo tongues, in this case, refer not to the lanky pink bird, but to a small marine snail that is often described as “cute” and “happy.” Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself.

These inch-long polka-dotted snails are quite common in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Flamingo tongues (Cyphoma gibbosum) are mollusks, and they abide by the status quo set by phylum Mollusca. Members of this phylum, for the most part, are characterized by soft-bodied organisms protected by a shell, which is secreted by a membrane-like body part called the mantle. If you have one shell, like a snail, you are a univalve, and if you have two, like a clam, a bivalve. A few notable exceptions to this rule, however, are octopuses, who have entirely lost the development of a shell over time. Shell or not, these organisms still have a distinguishable “head” region and a muscular “foot” they use to move. Most mollusks, aside from bivalves, have a radula: a small tooth-like structure that is used to scrape food. 

Within the phylum Mollusca is the class Gastropoda. Gastropods are univalve mollusks that we recognize as snails (with a single shell) and slugs (without any shell), and they represent about 80% of all mollusks. There are more than 62,000 species of gastropods, and they have evolved to fit every ecological corner of our planet. From the deepest parts of the ocean to the tops of mountains, they can be found in virtually any environment and serve a host of purposes. A “Where’s Waldo” of sorts, the hunt for flamingo tongues sends you searching for an inch-long, polka-dotted snail scattered around coral reefs rather than for a man in a striped shirt. They are quite common here in the Turks & Caicos Islands, and also occupy a range of waters from North Carolina all the way to northern Brazil. 

The food of choice of flamingo tongues happens to be the same as their preferred habitat: soft corals such as sea fans or sea rods, members of the Plexauridae family. Sea fans are wide, flexible planes of latticework supported by a trunk of sorts that anchors it to the ground. They overlap in their distribution with the flamingo tongue, growing on reefs and rocky shorelines with heavy wave action. They grow perpendicular to the waves to provide the least amount of resistance and avoid becoming detached. Purple sea fans (Gorgonia ventalina), as their name suggests, are usually an alluring shade of purple that gives underwater photographers the perfect backdrop to the popular subject of choice. Flamingo tongues decorate sea fans and sea rods like ornaments on a Christmas tree, delicately hanging in place for all to adore.  

Flamingo tongues use their tooth-like radula to scrape the top, living layer of the coral for food, but the leftovers don’t go to waste! After mating, female flamingo tongues will lay several capsules of eggs, each with up to 300 embryos, in the structure of the coral host left bare by grazing. This is likely because this region is free of toxins that may otherwise hurt the eggs. The eggs hatch after about 10 days and swim in the water column for an indeterminate amount of time before they settle to the corals and start the process over again, and the corals are able to grow back if not too heavily grazed. 

The flamingo tongue is a favorite of photographers and recreational divers alike, but to most shellers they are deceiving. Those delicate orange spots that line the shell are actually part of the snail’s body, the mantle, rather than the shell. This is why finding flamingo tongue shells can be rather disappointing, as they are usually a plain cream or beige color. Their affinity for sea fans and other soft corals has worked out to be advantageous: the toxins the corals produce for defense are consumed by the flamingo tongue and actually incorporated into its own defense system. Its flashy patterning is a way of warning off predators including hogfish, spiny lobsters and some pufferfish. Besides just providing a warning sign, the mantle acts as the lungs, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen in the water. 

The fingerprint flamingo tongue models an orange and black striped pattern.

Polka-dots may not be the only pattern you find. Previously thought to be three different species, there are a couple of other interesting but less common variations of flamingo tongues: the fingerprint flamingo tongue (C. signatum) and McGinty’s flamingo tongue (C. mcgintyi). The fingerprint flamingo tongue models an orange and black striped pattern while the McGinty’s flamingo tongue has smaller, darker spots that contrast with a whiter shell. A study conducted by Reijnen and van der Meij from the Naturalis and Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2017 tested the genetics across all three types and found that they are in fact the same species, despite slim differences in patterning, color and shape of their shells. 

Everyone who encounters a flamingo tongue wants to get the perfect photo. Luckily, subjects such as these don’t move much except for their flexible coral habitats.  

See the following for tips on shooting photos underwater. Then, the next time you are met with confused looks when mentioning the flamingo tongue, you can show off a few of your new photographs.

Tips for photographing flamingo tongues 

Floating in space

First and foremost, it is extremely important to practice good buoyancy. This means being aware of your position in the water column and not being too close to the coral. Soft corals like sea fans and sea rods grow up from reefs, so they are more susceptible to collision with divers and snorkelers who are not paying attention to the direction they are swimming. Touching the reef is never a good idea for your safety and for the safety of the animals that live there. Keeping careful track of your movements and presence in the water around the reef is the best way to prevent any unwanted interactions. 

 Lights, camera, action!

Look for flamingo tongues that are exposed to nice lighting. They typically live in depths of up to 45 feet, allowing for ample light especially in the crystal-clear waters of the Turks & Caicos. You will want to find one that is not shielded by corals or other obstacles, so that both the light and your view is uninterrupted. Proper lighting is the best way to illuminate the beautiful patterning of the flamingo tongue’s mantle. Look for ones that have settled on nice backgrounds. Bright purple sea fans are often a crowd favorite, but soft corals with interesting structures will also provide for a nice addition. Beware of what is behind the corals. Is it reef? Other divers? You don’t want any distractions. If you are lucky, you may find more than one specimen or perhaps more than one type!  

Ready for the close-up

Lastly, work the angles! Experiment. Try to find ways to present the flamingo tongue as more than just a shell. Perhaps part of its foot is showing, or maybe you are able to capture it from the underside. Macro lenses are your best bet with their tiny size, though many camera settings will allow you to set a macro focus without having to invest in additional equipment. 

At the School for Field Studies’ Center for Marine Resource Studies on South Caicos, students are able to get in their own practice behind the camera. Students taking the PADI Advanced Open Water SCUBA course participate in five training dives. Two are required: a deep training dive and a navigation dive. Otherwise, divers are usually allowed to choose the remaining three. At the center, we offer Underwater Photography as one of those training dives, where students can experiment with cameras and put some of these tips to use.      Carmen Hoyt

For more information, contact SFS Center Director Heidi Hertler, PhD at hhertler@fieldstudies.org.



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