The heart of a dragon: 3D anatomical reconstruction of the 'scaly-foot gastropod' (Mollusca: Gastropoda: Neomphalina) reveals its extraordinary circulatory system

Chong Chen*, Jonathan T. Copley, Katrin Linse, Alex D. Rogers, Julia D. Sigwart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
242 Downloads (Pure)


Introduction: The 'scaly-foot gastropod' (Chrysomallon squamiferum Chen et al., 2015) from deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems of the Indian Ocean is an active mobile gastropod occurring in locally high densities, and it is distinctive for the dermal scales covering the exterior surface of its foot. These iron-sulfide coated sclerites, and its nutritional dependence on endosymbiotic bacteria, are both noted as adaptations to the extreme environment in the flow of hydrogen sulfide. We present evidence for other adaptations of the 'scaly-foot gastropod' to life in an extreme environment, investigated through dissection and 3D tomographic reconstruction of the internal anatomy.

Results: Our anatomical investigations of juvenile and adult specimens reveal a large unganglionated nervous system, a simple and reduced digestive system, and that the animal is a simultaneous hermaphrodite. We show that Chrysomallon squamiferum relies on endosymbiotic bacteria throughout post-larval life. Of particular interest is the circulatory system: Chrysomallon has a very large ctenidium supported by extensive blood sinuses filled with haemocoel. The ctenidium provides oxygen for the host but the circulatory system is enlarged beyond the scope of other similar vent gastropods. At the posterior of the ctenidium is a remarkably large and well-developed heart. Based on the volume of the auricle and ventricle, the heart complex represents approximately 4 % of the body volume. This proportionally giant heart primarily sucks blood through the ctenidium and supplies the highly vascularised oesophageal gland. Thus we infer the elaborate cardiovascular system most likely evolved to oxygenate the endosymbionts in an oxygen poor environment and/or to supply hydrogen sulfide to the endosymbionts.

Conclusions: This study exemplifies how understanding the autecology of an organism can be enhanced by detailed investigation of internal anatomy. This gastropod is a large and active species that is abundant in its hydrothermal vent field ecosystem. Yet all of its remarkable features-protective dermal sclerites, circulatory system, high fecundity-can be viewed as adaptations beneficial to its endosymbiont microbes. We interpret these results to show that, as a result of specialisation to resolve energetic needs in an extreme chemosynthetic environment, this dramatic dragon-like species has become a carrying vessel for its bacteria.

Original languageEnglish
Article number13
Number of pages16
JournalFrontiers in zoology
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2015


  • 'Scaly-foot gastropod'
  • Chrysomallon squamiferum
  • Morphology
  • Hydrothermal vents
  • Anatomy
  • Deep-sea
  • Adaptation
  • Neomphalina


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