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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Flamingo Tongue Cyphoma gibbosum

Who?

Species ID: O.CG

Description: These gastropods have a roughly cylindrical shell with a bulge running around the middle. The soft fleshy mantle is white with large yellow to orange spots ringed in black, and extends outwards from the foot to cover the entire shell, which itself is plain beige to white. Sexes appear similar, and juveniles are thinner, cigar-shaped versions of adults

Maximum Size: 4 cm (1.5 in)

Longevity: At least 2 years

Status: Not currently on the IUCN endangered species list

Flamingo Tongue & People: This species is often taken by collectors believing it has a beautiful and brightly coloured shell. However, this colour resides instead in the fleshy mantle and once the animal dies the shell left behind is quite plain.

Where?

Geographical Range: Found throughout the shallow waters of the Caribbean

Coral Reef Zone: Found in the back reef, fore reef and drop-off zones

Favourite Habitat: These gastropods are seen almost exclusively on the animals they use as food, including sea fans, sea whips, and other gorgonians, although they occasionally cross open sand in search of new habitat

Depth Range: 2–14 m (6–45 ft)

A Day in The Life:

Dawn: Activity levels increase as the sun rises

Day: Flamingo tongues actively graze on their host gorgonian, where spawning also occurs

Dusk: Activity levels decrease as the sun sets

Night: Flamingo tongues are inactive and rest on their host gorgonian overnight

Who Eats Who?

The flamingo tongue is a predator of gorgonian corals including sea fans, sea plumes, sea rods, and sea whips. The flesh of these gorgonians contains toxic chemicals which the flamingo tongue absorbs to produce its own predator-deterring toxins. Flamingo tongues produce chemicals that make their flesh distasteful to many predators. However, they are still consumed by some large fishes, especially hogfish.

Scuba Diver & Snorkeler Best Practices

Prevent your garbage ending up in the sea : Stow your garbage—never throw it in the sea. Cigarette butts, plastic bags, bottles and other non-biodegradable garbage can remain in the environment for years, causing a threat to many forms of marine life. Turtles can mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish, swallow it, and then slowly starve to death as their systems are unable to digest plastic. Fishing lines can entangle marine life and wrap around corals, eventually weakening and breaking them. When onboard a dive boat, always ensure that you stow garbage in a closed bin or bag, where it cannot blow away in the wind. Remember the maxim: “Take only pictures and memories; leave only bubbles.”

Approach

As slow-moving gastropods, flamingo tongues are easily approached and can usually be found by looking for gorgonian corals.

Feeding Behaviour

Flamingo tongues are carnivores specialized in eating the flesh of gorgonians. They use a rasp-like tongue called a radula to scrape away the coral tissue, leaving behind the naked gorgonian skeleton. Some gorgonians have developed chemical defences that make them unsuitable for grazing. As such, a flamingo tongue exploring a new gorgonian may begin dining by taking only sample bites, leaving behind a trail that resembles a dotted line. If the gorgonian is deemed suitable, the flamingo tongue begins grazing in earnest, leaving a continuous trail. While they feed, flamingo tongues absorb toxic chemicals from their hosts that they secrete into their skin to deter predators. Flamingo tongues never graze their host gorgonian to death; instead, they leave their current gorgonian every so often and cross sand or rock to find a new host. Although flamingo tongues can crawl down the base of the gorgonians to reach the sand, they can also descend on a strand of mucous, somewhat like a spider.

Observe, record & share:

O O.CG-101 – Sampling: Flamingo tongues exploring a new host may take only occasional, exploratory bites, leaving behind a grazing trail that resembles a dotted line

O O.CG-102 – Grazing: Flamingo tongues move along gorgonians, scraping away their flesh and leaving behind a continuous grazing trail

O O.CG-103 – Crossing bottom: Flamingo tongues cross sand or rock to look for a new gorgonian

O O.CG-104 – Mucous thread: Flamingo tongues dangle from gorgonians on a mucous thread to lower themselves down onto the sand

Attack & Defense Behaviour

Unlike most gastropods that rely mainly on their hard shell for  protection, the flamingo tongue’s primary defence is its unpleasant taste. As it consumes the toxins found in the gorgonians upon which it dines, it deposits chemicals in its flamboyantly coloured mantle, the soft skin that extends from its foot to cover the shell. The bright colours of the mantle serve as a warning of its toxicity to potential predators. If a predator continues to approach, the flamingo tongue can retract its soft tissues into its shell for protection. Flamingo tongues often seek out other members of their own kind. This is thought to be a protective measure against predation, but may also be related to feeding or mating behaviour.

Observe, record & share:

O O.CG-201 – Mantle retraction: The soft, colourful outer mantle is pulled into the shell

O O.CG-202 – Aggregation: Flamingo tongues gather, in what is thought to be a protective measure

Reproductive Behaviour

Flamingo tongues reproduce sexually by laying demersal eggs, and do not undergo sex change during reproductive development. When the mood strikes, a male will approach a female and crawl up onto the right side of her shell. The male extends a white tube under the edge of the female’s shell and begins mating, which can last more than four hours. After about four days, the female lays translucent, white egg capsules in rows or small clumps along grazed portions of the gorgonian she lives on, perhaps to prevent the toxins in the living gorgonian tissue from leaching into the delicate embryos. Each egg capsule contains many embryos, giving them a speckled appearance. The capsules hatch after another ten days and the young disperse into the plankton until they are large enough to settle back on the coral reef. Mating and egg-laying in the flamingo tongue occurs during the day throughout the year, although some observations indicate that the frequency and timing may change according to the lunar cycle.

Observe, record & share:

O O.CG-301 – Mounting: The male mounts the female and perches on her right side

O O.CG-302 – Egg capsules: Egg capsules can be found on grazed areas of gorgonian corals

O O.CG-303 – Mating: The male extends a white tube under the female’s shell and mating occurs

O O.CG-304 – Egg laying: Females lay egg capsules on gorgonians in rows or clumps

Highlight Behaviors

Warning colouration: The beautiful colours of the flamingo tongue are not on its shell, as many prospective shell-collectors believe, but instead on a thin membrane of flesh that the animal uses to cover its shell. This thin membrane is part of the mantle and contains foultasting chemicals that the flamingo tongue obtains from its prey gorgonian. The foot and body of the animal are free from toxins. The reason for the flamingo tongue’s colourful mantle is to warn potential predators that it tastes bad. This kind of warning colouration is called aposematic colouration. If any organism, predator or otherwise, comes too close to a flamingo tongue, it retracts its mantle into its plain, cream-coloured shell.

Did You Know?

• Flamingo tongues wandering open sand or rock, looking for a new host coral, will sometimes cross the slime trails of other flamingo tongues. When this happens, they change course to follow these trails; in doing so, they usually find a new host sooner.

• One of the French names for the flamingo tongue, “Monnaie caraïbe à ocelles”, translates roughly to “eye-spotted Caribbean money”, which refers to the days when their shells and those of related species were used as a form of money among the native populations of the Caribbean islands.

• Each transparent flamingo tongue egg capsule can contain up to 300 tiny white embryos, which give them a speckled appearance when examined closely.

What to do?

Share your observations today!: Discover your species of interest, observe its behaviour, and share your picturesand videos with friends and coral reef enthusiasts around the world! Upload media to the web, tagged with species common name (ex.: trumpetfish) and species ID code (ex.: A.AM) or species behaviour code (ex.: A.AM-101)

Flamingo Tonguezoom image
Flamingo Tonguezoom image
Flamingo Tonguezoom image
Flamingo Tonguezoom image
  • Class Gastropoda
  • Length 1–1 in (3–4 cm)
  • Habitat Coral reefs at about 50 ft (15 m)
  • Distribution Western Atlantic, from North Carolina to Brazil; Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea
Flamingo Tongue habitat mapzoom image