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What is a Triton?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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A triton is a marine snail in the genus Charonia, although this common name is sometimes used to refer to representatives of other genera as well. Tritons can be found throughout the world, with some species getting extremely large, and they can be an important part of the marine food chain. In addition to being interesting to observe in the wild, tritons are also valued for their aesthetic value, as their shells are quite beautiful, and some people like to collect them.

Tritons prefer warm waters in tropical and temperate zones, and these mollusks reproduce sexually, with the females laying large numbers of eggs which develop into free-floating larvae. As the larvae grow, they develop shells and ultimately turn into adults, preying on other marine organisms. Tritons are common around reefs and rocky outcroppings, with some species growing up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) in length.

The triton has several tricks up its sleeves which make it an extremely effective hunter. In the first place, the animals have very sharp, rasping tongues known as radulas. The radula is capable of cutting through tough external skin, allowing the animals to inject their prey with paralyzing saliva. Once the prey has been paralyzed, the triton can feed at leisure; the animals can also swallow smaller prey whole, spitting out spines, bones, and other undesirable body parts later.

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These gastropods are quite fast, easily capable of overtaking most prey, so although the starfish and other creatures the triton feeds on may attempt to flee, the snail usually catches up. These predatory snails are particularly valued in waters infested with the crown-of-thorns starfish, a spiny starfish variety which has been blamed for the destruction of coral reefs in some areas. The spines of this starfish are poisonous in addition to sharp, so it has fewer natural predators than other starfish, making it hard to eliminate. In areas where there is nutrient-rich runoff from shore, these starfish can flourish, choking out other species, so the efforts of the triton are greatly appreciated by conservationists.

Because tritons have historically been collected for their shells, some populations are considered vulnerable or endangered. Living tritons should be left alone when found in the wild, although it is acceptable to pick up shells left behind by dead snails, or shells found on the beach. Since it is difficult to verify the provenance of triton shells, some conservationists suggest that people should never purchase such shells, thereby discouraging the market for them.

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