Developmental modularity and phenotypic novelty within a biphasic life cycle: morphogenesis of a cone snail venom gland

Louise R. Page

Abstract

The venom gland of predatory cone snails (Conus spp.), which secretes neurotoxic peptides that rapidly immobilize prey, is a proposed key innovation for facilitating the extraordinary feeding behaviour of these gastropod molluscs. Nevertheless, the unusual morphology of this gland has generated controversy about its evolutionary origin and possible homologues in other gastropods. I cultured feeding larvae of Conus lividus and cut serial histological sections through the developing foregut during larval and metamorphic stages to examine the development of the venom gland. Results support the hypothesis of homology between the venom gland and the mid-oesophageal gland of other gastropods. They also suggest that the mid-region of the gastropod foregut, like the anterior region, is divisible into dorsal and ventral developmental modules that have different morphological, functional and ontogenetic fates. In larvae of C. lividus, the ventral module of the middle foregut transformed into the anatomically novel venom gland of the post-metamorphic stage by rapidly pinching-off from the main dorsal channel of the mid-oesophagus, an epithelial remodelling process that may be similar to other cases where epithelial tubes and vesicles arise from a pre-existing epithelial sheet. The developmental remodelling mechanism could have facilitated an abrupt evolutionary transition to the derived morphology of this important gastropod feeding innovation.

  • Received March 7, 2011.
  • Accepted April 27, 2011.
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