Souped-Up Snails

Look: A computer smaller than a penny just solved an ecological mystery

Originally Published: 

Inhee Lee

Meet Partula hyalina. This white-shelled snail is native to the island of Tahiti.

Inhee Lee

Invasive snails, namely the giant African land snail and rosy wolf snail (pictured below), have hunted P. hyalina and other native species for decades.


However, P. hyalina is remarkably good at evading its predators.

Scientists were unsure why the snail is so resilient — until they employed the help of one of the smallest computers in the world.

University of Michigan

The device, called the Michigan Micro Mote, originally debuted in 2014. At the time, it was the world’s smallest computer.

Martin Vloet, University of Michigan

That same University of Michigan team later created an even smaller device that debuted in 2018. Today, it holds the title of the world’s smallest computer.

Here it is next to a grain of rice:

Trevor Coote

Monitoring snails on Tahiti was the Micro Mote’s first in-the-field research job.

Researchers fitted the micro-computer to the shells of invasive snails and tracked their movements around the island.

University of Michigan

They also placed sensors on plants that P. hyalina rested on since they were not allowed to tag the endangered snails themselves.

Bick C.S., et. al./Nature Communications

They observed that P. hyalina consistently spent time in areas where the invasive snails did not: spots that were hotter and were near the edge of the forest.

Bick, C.S. et. al./Nature Communications

P. hylania’s light-colored shells are able to tolerate more heat than their predators’ — protecting them from the sun and from predators who can’t stand the heat.

But if it weren’t for the mini computers, this mystery may have never been solved.

University of Michigan

Micro-technology could help scientists dig up even more secrets about our world in the future. The computer’s creators are interested in applications ranging from cancer studies to oil reservoir monitoring.

Read more stories about science here.

Thanks for reading,
head home for more!